In this brand new Issues series, we speak to entrepreneurs about the barriers they faced in business, and what kept them focussed on success.
Up first is Shalom Lloyd, Founder of Naturally Tribal Skincare, a company whose goal it is to provide natural remedies to manage skin conditions like dry skin and eczema. Turning to her ancestral roots, she sources natural remedies using raw, 100% natural and sustainable ingredients from Africa. Naturally Tribal Skincare now employs local women in the Kingdom of Essan, Nigeria, with an ethos of ‘trade not aid’.
Shalom is also Director at JE Oils, a Nigeria-based manufacturer of agriculturally derived oils, which delivers ethical and sustainable products locally, as well as to customers around the globe. In addition, she is the Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Emerging Markets Quality Trials (EMQT), an organisation focused on the inclusion of patients of African descent into clinical trials.
Driven by a desire to create a more sustainable, inclusive and diverse business landscape, this is what motivates Shalom – in her own words.
Owning and operating a business is far from easy. I think I have always had that so-called ‘entrepreneurial spirit’, but what actually prepared me was working for other people; learning, absorbing and understanding what I would do differently if it was my own business.
I had to set my priorities and ask myself: What problem are you solving? Is there a market for it? Can you afford it? Do you know or have the right people?
Failure is the first step to success; multiple failures are multiple steps towards success and if there is a glass ceiling, as they say, then I put it there myself.
‘If you build it, they will come!”
I never intended to start a company. I’m a pharmacist, I’ve worked in drug development. So entering the beauty industry felt like a big leap. When my son was born covered in eczema, I blamed myself, thinking: is it the chemicals, or the IVF? I live in a world where science and nature collide. I believe in the power of medicines and chemicals, but I wanted to find a natural remedy for my child.
Entering the beauty industry wasn’t necessarily something I planned to do. I was just a mum, but also a woman who had gone through four cycles of IVF and finally had my twins. After pumping myself with chemicals to conceive him, I wanted to find something natural to soothe his eczema. As a mother, you’re going through the internet joining focus groups, and you realise – oh my God – there’s so many people with this same issue, the same problem that could write the same concerning stories you have.
When I did find the solution, it would have been a crime not to share it. Naturally Tribal is a journey and the success we have achieved to date is definitely down to our values, our principles and our ethos to do what’s right. If you build it, they will come!
I also co-founded EMQT to advocate for racial diversity in clinical trials. Black people make up 17% of the world’s population, yet less than 3% of us are involved in clinical trials. When my father passed away from cancer, he lived in Africa. I wonder if he was involved in the clinical trial process, maybe he’d still be with me today. I’m always driven by trying to create a solution.
When you are starting out, you don’t realise that people can make or break your business. They are your greatest assets and can be your biggest downfall.
There will always be barriers and obstacles throughout our life journey. My life experiences have not only nurtured the scientist in me, they have also given me confidence, determination, tenacity, the will to succeed, the ability to adapt, and an understanding that my success or failure is down to me.
When I was 16, I was fortunate enough to be given a full scholarship to study pharmacy in the former Soviet Union. I arrived in Moscow, and within 24 hours was on a train to a small town in the Ukraine – Vinnitsa, which became my home for my one year intensive Russian language programme. Six years after living and studying in a country to which I arrived without knowing anyone, or speaking a single word of Russian, I returned back home to the UK with a BSc and MSc in pharmacy. In addition to the language barrier, I faced challenges in the former Soviet Union being a Black woman.
However, my experience in Ukraine not only nurtured the scientist in me, it also gave me confidence. It gave me determination, tenacity, the will to succeed, the ability to adapt, and most importantly the understanding that my success, or my failure is down to me. In Africa, it’s still very much a man’s world. But we women are learning to stand up, and we need to shout out and be heard. And I love that we’re doing that professionally and with power. A woman building a factory and employing people in Africa is not something you see every day.
I never embark on a journey expecting it to be easy. I go in knowing that there will always be things that get in the way. I am also very fortunate to be one of those people who sees opportunities in everything I do, believing that ‘failure’ is an option! Failure is the first step to success; multiple failures are multiple steps towards success and if there is a glass ceiling, as they say, then I put it there myself.
Reminding myself of my ‘why’ has always helped me to stay motivated and focussed.
Finance was of course a big challenge when launching Naturally Tribal Skincare. I had to remortgage my home to start this business. It has been worth it, but cashflow is a killer!
Building the factory in Essan required investment and I am honoured to be working with investors who are also colleagues and friends. When you are starting out, you don’t realise that people can make or break your business. They are your greatest assets and can be your biggest downfall.
Then there was the challenge of the industry itself! The beauty industry is so saturated, hence you have to be bringing something special, unique and innovative to the table. I have learned that I deserve my place at this table and never to sell myself or my products short.
Diversifying and advocating for fairness
The Shea industry supports and provides income to over 16 million women across the African continent, but around 8 million Shea trees are lost every year across West Africa. Our job is to do what we can to support that supply chain; we can’t just consume.
With the help and support of the leaders like the King of Essan, we’re taking baby steps towards putting Shea producing communities on the map.
Reminding myself of my ‘why’ has always helped me to stay motivated and focussed. This so-called entrepreneurial journey is a lonely and hard one! However, it is really true what they say about doing what you love and loving what you do.
I have sacrificed time with my family, my children; I have invested way too much, and I have so many people relying on me – I cannot give up now. The confidence my family has in me keeps me going, and the fact that the businesses I am involved with impacts and touches lives every day keeps me focused. My focus is now to ensure that we are commercially viable and profitable!
How these businesses make me feel gets me through those times when I feel as though the odds are stacked up against me.
“Be genuine, surround yourself with a great team and remember that failure is always a possibility”
Follow your passion
My advice to budding entrepreneurs would be to do something you are passionate about – because the journey is tough! Never let a lack of finance stop you. Be genuine, surround yourself with a great team and remember that failure is always a possibility – and even a necessary step towards success.
When you start out, particularly in a sector you are somewhat unfamiliar with, there is a tendency to assume that everyone knows more than you do, which simply isn’t true. Always listen to your gut and have confidence in your product or service.
Involving and working with the right people from the start would have saved me a lot of pain, too – but going through this process and journey has taught me some very valuable life lessons! If I could go back, I would tell myself: “It will be OK. Just take your time, don’t succumb to the pressure and surround yourself with the right people. Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ and place more value on your time.”
Finally, know your numbers and know the value you bring. If you are going to do it, do it well and don’t cut corners!
Top five tips to succeed in business
1. Pursue something you’re passionate about. The business journey is tough, so you need to really care about the company you’re building.
2. Always have confidence in your product or service. ‘Imposter syndrome’ can affect even the most confident people, but don’t assume the business world is full of people who know more than you do.
3. Remind yourself of your ‘why’! This will help to motivate you and sharpen your focus when running your business seems overwhelming.
4. Surround yourself with the right people.
5. Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’. Your time is valuable and it’s up to you how you want to spend it – especially when you’re trying to build a business.
What the Shea industry is
Shea butter is a natural vegetable fat containing saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, vitamins E, A, F, and carotene. It’s used to soothe and moisturise skin and provides an appropriate basis for hair and skin hydrating products.
A product of the nuts of karité trees that grow in the Sahel region, which extends from West to East Africa, Shea has been described as “women’s gold” for centuries. This is due to both its golden colour and the employment opportunities it provides to millions of women across the continent.
According to GMI Insights, the global shea butter market is estimated to reach $2.9 billion by 2025. Europe accounts for more than a quarter share of the global market. Data from the Global Shea Alliance shows that the majority (90%) of processed shea butter goes to the food industry, while the rest is used in personal care products, such as hair and skin treatments.
After the global banking crisis a decade ago, a Dutch social anthropologist called Joris Luyendijk conducted more than 200 anonymous interviews with senior figures in the City of London. He wanted to understand how the ‘Crash’ had happened and what we could learn from it.
His findings were revealed in a weekly column he wrote for The Guardian and wrapped up in a compelling book called Swimming With Sharks. The lessons he drew from these frank interviews, sometimes held late at night, often over a glass of wine, were alarming. Corroborating the perspectives of other industry commentators, they shone a bright light upon the cultural and systemic failings of this complex world of money that we all depend upon.
Swimming with Sharks was published in 2015 but the problems it highlighted remain unresolved. I met up with Joris (during the day; no wine) to talk through nine key lessons that emerged from the project, which he explains in his own words.
- The next big financial crash will begin with IT
- Banks really are too big
- There is no such thing as ‘the bank’
- It’s all about the short term
- Excessively complex products should be banned
- Regulation doesn’t work
- Banking is amoral
- Liability should start at the top
- If you want capitalism, you need the possibility of failure
“Funding for IT is often inadequate because the long-term investment required would undermine the banks’ need to deliver short-term profits to their shareholders”
1. THE NEXT BIG FINANCIAL CRASH WILL BEGIN WITH IT
Of all the issues that people discussed with me over that two-year period, this was the one that was most widely embraced by those I met.
The UK’s largest banks did not grow slowly and organically; they grew in leaps and bounds by taking over other banks and financial institutions of varying sizes and complexity, spread all over the globe.
The IT systems for these rapidly expanding groups have had to be repeatedly patched and upgraded to keep pace with these developments and the changing nature of technology. However, funding for IT is often inadequate because the long-term investment required would undermine the need that banks have to deliver short-term profits to their shareholders.
The vast majority of people I spoke to agreed that the precariousness and opacity of their systems make the big banks fundamentally vulnerable. And there are plenty of people ready to exploit that vulnerability – recreational hackers, terrorists, even disgruntled ex-employees.
2. BANKS REALLY ARE TOO BIG
Banks in the UK and beyond have grown to such a size that it’s impossible for the people at the top to know what it is really going on. An auditing accountant told me: “As a CEO you can’t understand every single algorithm your bank uses, every product they trade. CEOs get someone telling them: ‘Don’t worry, it’s under control’.”
Those high up know just enough to get by but not enough to know what to do in an emergency.
3. THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS ‘THE BANK’
One banker told me: “We need to get rid of the idea of ‘the bank’. That term implies a unity of action and purpose, as if there’s an all-encompassing view driving that bank. There is no such thing. What we have is a collection of individuals in positions of power.”
The social anthropologist and journalist Gillian Tett demonstrated this in her book Fool’s Gold. People in banking tend to work in silos, a practice that hinders the exchange of crucial information. Banks are a collection of clusters of activity. Sometimes these clusters work in isolation to others, and sometimes in conflict with each other.
“Without job security, you have no loyalty and no continuity”
4. IT’S ALL ABOUT THE SHORT TERM
Another banker said to me: “In my career I have almost never seen anyone trying to build something. There are just cycles of new guys coming in. They put forward a plan promising to make money in three to four years. The pressure is huge, and the easiest way is to take more risk.”
The bonus culture drives short-term gain at the expense of long-term sustainability. The requirement to deliver value to shareholders does the same. And crucially, there is very little job security in some areas of banking. Without job security, you have no loyalty and no continuity.
5. EXCESSIVELY COMPLEX PRODUCTS SHOULD BE BANNED
How many stories have we heard about mis-selling and excessively complex products? Why are banks not subject to the same sort of controls as food or cars or medicine? There are all kinds of synthetic foods that we don’t allow because we don’t know what they could lead to but in finance we seem to treat the market like a lab rat. We just throw these things in there and only when they explode do we lose them.
Complexity shields people from critical scrutiny, and it gets really dangerous when you combine it with zero loyalty and the profit motive.
Some people like the fact that there is a shift away from traders in banks being the old-school ballsy, wheeler-dealer types towards more geeky types who understand the maths, the data and the technology. But the problem with the maths is that fewer and fewer people do actually understand it.
6. REGULATION DOESN’T WORK
People working for the regulators don’t get paid anything like as much as most of the people they are trying to regulate – and the banks hoover the best ones up anyway. They are always trying to play catch-up and introducing more red tape doesn’t help because it just makes it more difficult for disruptive fintech start-ups to provide competition.
“Part of the problem is a lack of education from school upwards”
Then there are the ‘Big Four’ auditors; KPMG, Ernst & Young (EY), Deloitte and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). Why would they rock the boat during the auditing process when the banks are such valuable sources of revenue to them? You could say the same about the ‘Magic Circle’ law firms.
Of course, there are always the internal risk auditors within the banks themselves who may be very hard working and well intentioned. However, given the issues of clusters and complexity outlined above, it is often too easy for some within the banks to outfox them.
And then there are us – the customers. Most of us know very little about banking, so part of the problem is a lack of education from school upwards.
7. BANKING IS AMORAL
While banks might claim to encourage cultural values with an element of morality, the banking world in general takes an amoral position. The priority is to make money for clients, for shareholders and for the bankers themselves, particularly those in senior positions. Value judgements about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ don’t come into it. And for many people I spoke to, this made perfect sense – morality complicates a system that is built on logic and process.
“There is no law on earth that offers a perfect fit with reality … this will always be a problem until banks embrace a moral framework for employees”
Of course, amorality also absolves people of their moral responsibility and is very popular with competitive people. And mathematicians love it because you can play lots of arithmetical games around shareholder value – but stakeholder value is much more difficult to measure.
Unfortunately, though, there is no law on earth that offers a perfect fit with reality, especially where activities such as banking cross jurisdictions and technology platforms. There will always be loopholes to be exploited, and people who are financially motivated to take advantage. And this will always be a problem until banks seriously embrace a moral framework for their employees to work within.
8. LIABILITY SHOULD START AT THE TOP
A lot of people suffered when the banks collapsed – including hundreds of thousands of people within the banks who lost their jobs or endured significant stigma for creating something that was entirely beyond their control.
It might have been different if the people at the very top of the banks had expected significant punishment for creating economic and social mayhem.
9. IF YOU WANT CAPITALISM, YOU NEED THE POSSIBILITY OF FAILURE
People say that banking is a capitalist, free-market system but it’s not. Once you reach a certain size as a bank, you can’t fail – the State won’t let you. That’s not a free market.
It’s also extremely difficult to start a new bank – most niches are dominated by three or four large brands.
And while there are plenty of people in banks who are paid to take significant risks, they are not the ones bearing the risks – that comes down to the bondholders, the shareholders and the taxpayers.
One banker said to me: “Banking today is like playing Russian roulette with someone else’s head.”
THE TRADER WHO FORGOT HIS FRIENDS ON 9/11
An extract from Swimming With Sharks by Joris Luyendijk:
“On 11 September 2001, he was working as a trader at a top bank in London. As the first plane hit the towers, many people were still thinking, or hoping, that it was an accident. He had a brainwave and called a good friend of his in New York: did he see any other planes or white trails in the sky? If not, the airspace over New York had been closed, meaning the authorities were treating this as a possible terror attack. The sky was blue and empty so, as soon as he could, he started selling stocks in insurance companies, in airlines… Never in his life had he worked so hard as he did on that day and never did he make his bank so much money. The London markets were closing, he did his digital paperwork and only then did it occur to him that he knew people in the Twin Towers. “I had friends who were working there,” he said, almost indignantly. “Until that point, I had not thought of them, not for a second.”
Once upon a time, you’d have been unlikely to spot a tattoo anywhere away from the harbour. British society would have been as lacking in ethnic diversity as it was devoid of non-binary gender roles, divorcees, stubble, bicycle helmets and locked front doors. Five-figure salaries with benefits would have been almost unheard of. You’d have had one pair of shoes and not many more television channels. Smoking would have been emulated and even encouraged.
Suffice it to say, and like it or not, there are very real moral, cultural and ethical differences between generations in our society today. What’s more, with five clearly defined generations now cohabiting and co-working, these differences have never been more apparent.
Yet we’re far from perfect in accommodating these differences, and furthest when it comes to that most maligned of generations: millennials. Remember when, back in 2017, the Australian property tycoon Tim Gurner took a pot shot at millennials, claiming they’d be further up the property ladder if they stopped brunching on smashed avocado on toast and lattes? Granted, Gurner’s comments didn’t make him popular, but they undoubtedly resonated with some members of previous generations in agreement that millennials can be more prone to laziness and a sense of entitlement. As a millennial myself, even I’m averse to the term.
Construction mogul Tim Gurner is upfront about Australia’s housing problem -he says his generation needs to stop whinging & start saving. pic.twitter.com/bysx3Jler5
— 60 Minutes Australia (@60Mins) May 14, 2017
At the very least, our general awareness of differences between generations is a welcome development, especially in the 21st-century workplace. Until now, the generational approach towards managing workforces has been one-size-fits-all, like-it-or-lump-it. Managers were frequently set in their ways, and if they grated with other generations, the reaction was invariable: buy in or bye-bye.
Thankfully, management styles are changing to reflect modern preoccupations with equality and inclusivity. What isn’t being considered, though – at least not to the same extent – is how millennials approach money.
MANY MILLENNIALS FEEL STUCK
According to Investopedia, economic studies of those who were unemployed during the recession in the early 1980s in the US revealed that they were still financially behind schedule after two decades. Is that to say that millennials, having lived through the global banking crisis of 2008 onwards, are destined to suffer an even worse fate?
Millennial career coach Alice Stapleton certainly senses a good deal of frustration: “People are feeling that they should be further ahead than they are. Many had expectations of where they would be by the age of 30 – owning houses and cars, being married and having children – but they’re not there yet.” In some cases, they’re not even close. The proportion of renters in the UK has doubled in the last two decades. Many are facing the prospect of renting for life.
On top of the recession, millennials are facing a tide of challenges unique to their generation. Because of employment competition, they’re staying in education a lot longer. Because of work experience requirements, they’re delaying their entry to salaried employment. And because their parents are living longer, their inheritances are being used to pay for care.
All of this has shaped an approach towards money unique to the millennial generation, which Alice believes is defined by the prioritising of short-term experiences – on the one hand fuelled by a millennials needing to meet outgoings such as rent and student loans on a month-to-month basis, and on the other an increasing awareness of life’s finitude.
“Picture the scene post-War,” says Alice. “The focus was on long-term strategy about stability, security, provision and accountability, making sure that we and our families are OK for the rest of our lives because God forbid something like that happened again, and that mentality spilled down into the parents of millennials. Today, as long as the main concern is meeting outgoings, it’s all about the short term.
“When it comes to spending and investing, millennials want to know that their money is producing some sort of social and environmental good”
“Also, it’s maybe because of new communications channels, but we seem to be more aware that life is really quite short. We hear about the good and the bad – from new opportunities to terrible accidents – and we become determined to make the most of our time on this earth.”
This isn’t to say, of course, that the only thing on millennial minds is enjoying the here and now; they’re also focused on fixing the here and now. “When it comes to spending and investing, millennials want to know that their money is producing some sort of social and environmental good,” says Alice. “I’ve worked with people who have very little money but are still willing to crowdfund or donate to something that they feel has particular value or which aligns with their values.”
THEY HAVE A DESIRE TO WORK FOR GOOD
Millennials tend to apply the same philosophy towards spending and investing as they do work – which is to say they look for work that gives them a sense of purpose and meaning.
“The whole idea of a job for life now sounds a bit stale,” says Alice. “Our access to information constantly reveals new opportunities and their accessibility to us. When millennials travel up the hierarchy at work, it’s less about long-term financial goals and more about self-actualisation. I think very few people are happy being small cogs. Millennials want there to be a point to our work. They want to see the impact of what they’re doing, that there’s a result to it and that they’ve actually helped someone or something as a result of their work.”
“Working for a corporate giant whose operations can be conceived as detrimental to the environment or society would be obvious cause for conflict for a millennial.”
It’s perhaps not going too far to suggest that for millennials, this matters more than money. More than ever, our identities are tied up with what we do; it’s the first thing people ask us. To be able to show, through our work, that our lives are about more than working 9–5 can be massively rewarding in itself.
Of course, we can’t pretend that ours is a world in which every job is an opportunity to reverse climate change, end poverty or further justice. On the contrary, there’s an obvious conflict in many cases between what millennials allegedly seek in their work and the very nature of the work they find themselves in.
“By and large, the millennial generation is a very socially responsible generation,” commented Alice. “They’re driving the climate change agenda, and a host of other environmental and social agendas. Working for a corporate giant whose operations can be conceived as detrimental to the environment or society would be obvious cause for conflict for a millennial.”
IT’S BETTER TO SHOW THAN TELL
Worryingly, 7 out of 10 millennials define financial stability as just being able to pay off their bills each month. Fortunately, savvy employers are addressing the challenge head on by offering employees financial education. Financial education can be understood in the round as an individual aspect of employee financial wellbeing. It sits alongside pay, benefits and rewards.
“We should be getting individuals to start thinking about what happens if their whole generation doesn’t have pensions or can’t afford their own care.”
“It’s great news that employers are willing to share that responsibility,” says Alice. “If we want to avoid a massive pension and social care crisis further down the line, then helping millennial employees to start thinking in the long-term too is bound to be positive.” And if that wasn’t reason enough, employers have an added benefit to offering financial education: there’s a direct correlation between employee financial wellbeing and work performance. That matters, particularly when 54% of millennials say that merely thinking about money makes them stressed, according to Edelman’s ‘Millennials with Money’.
Beyond financial education, what should employers be doing to accommodate the financial opinions of millennials? Well for a start, Alice reckons, they should be moving away from telling millennials what to do and start showing them the social implications of financial habits – playing to their apparent strengths, as it were.
“Yes, we’ve got a bit of a nanny state mentality, but we should be getting individuals to start thinking about what happens if their whole generation doesn’t have pensions or can’t afford their own care because they’ve been too focused on the short term and internalising their financial goals. If we as employers can really tap into that, we would be motivating the millennial generation to think about their future.”
The same applies to the way in which businesses should be positioning themselves to their employees, and many are doing it remarkably well. From energy majors to retail giants, businesses can no longer afford to treat corporate sustainability reporting as something tacked on to the end of a year’s profit hunting; it’s an integral part of business and of attracting and retaining the best talent, built around the extraction of opportunities for all employees – millennials included – to impact the world and the people in it.
WE’RE ALL MILLENNIALS AT HEART
Unfortunately, and despite the apparent desire for millennials to make social and environmental impacts, it remains a sad state of affairs that so many of us still define ourselves and our worth through material things.
“Social media hasn’t helped on that front,” says Alice. “You think your world’s good and you’re quite happily trundling along with your own goals and priorities, and then you go on Facebook or Instagram and you start believing you should be doing what everyone else is doing and have everything that they have. The same is true of reality TV.”
“When you think about it, a lot of people actually revert to millennial priorities when they retire”
And yet, wasn’t the same also true during the 1950s? They might not have had Facebook or Instagram or reality TV, but they did have fashion magazines, beauty pageants – their own generational equivalents. Perhaps the one common denominator across all generations when it comes to money is the fact that, as humans, we’re aspiring beings – and there’s little wrong with that.
“The important thing to recognise,” says Alice, “is the fact that there are differences between generations, and in particular different priorities. That doesn’t mean that one is right and the other is wrong. Yes, there are longer-term concerns for people today, but if we’ve learned anything about our world in recent years it’s how adaptable and changeable our world is. Respect should be given to the way the millennial generation is choosing to live life, in the here and now, because times are changing.”
Just because we’ve always been told that we should be buying a house doesn’t mean that renting is the wrong way to go. Just because we’ve always been told that a job is for life doesn’t mean that we can’t do work that isn’t meaningful to us. “When you think about it, a lot of people actually revert to millennial priorities when they retire,” says Alice. “They start travelling, doing out-of-the-ordinary activities and volunteering, because so often they’ve spent so many years doing something that wasn’t them. Surely that’s proof that millennials are doing something right.”
Alice has spent her working life helping people get to where they want to be – first as a probation officer and now as a career coach. Specialising in coaching clients in their 20s and early 30s, she is an expert on millennials. She has appeared in publications such as The Financial Times and The London Evening Standard.
Every May, Keith Skeoch and four friends he has known since the age of seven meet up in the Lake District. In their twenties, they would spend the trip mountaineering, carousing in the local pubs and sleeping it off in their tents. Now that they’re in their sixties, their wives join them in comfortable rented accommodation and they combine hearty dinners with fell-walking.
Keith has loved the hills all his life. Growing up in Guisborough, Yorkshire, he was able to walk from his front door as a teenager and go rock-climbing in the moors. “It seems unbelievable now that a 13-year-old kid could go off with his mates and do that,” he smiles. “No supervision and no one worrying.”
But while Keith now owns a property in the Lammermuir Hills, south of Edinburgh, physical peaks aren’t the only thing he has climbed over the decades. Although his schoolboy friends and his wife help to keep his feet on the (sometimes undulating) ground, Keith is a member of that elite club of people who have climbed to the top in one of the UK’s best known financial institutions.
A trained economist, he toyed with a career in academia and gave the Civil Service a spin before realising that the intellectual challenge of navigating financial markets, combined with research and building client relationships, was a mix that really excited him. Indeed, it proved such a thrill that he was often reluctant to accept the job offers and promotions that followed, fearful that he was leaving behind the parts of his work he loved most. Furthermore, early in his career at James Capel, whilst building up the company’s overseas investment team, he would likely have mocked the idea that he would ever relocate from London to Edinburgh.
However, having now been Chief Executive Officer of Standard Life Aberdeen for four years, and steering it through its merger with Aberdeen Asset Management, he appears to relish his role more than ever – and sees the extensive travel as a bonus. With appropriately blunt Yorkshire logic, he adds that, if he no longer relished “being around very interesting people”, he would simply stop doing it.
This summer, I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to interview Keith in front of a live audience at a Scottish Business Network event held at the offices of Aberdeen Standard Investments in London. Keith doesn’t do interviews very often, so this was a rare and fascinating opportunity to get inside the mind of a top-tier CEO. And he didn’t disappoint – relaxed, open, insightful about the sector and possessed of an impish sense of humour, we sat back and enjoyed hearing the story of his career to date. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.
FRASER: You studied economics at university – first at Sussex, then earning an MA at Warwick. What was student life like? And where were you most likely to be found – in the library, in the bar or on the sports field?
KEITH: Yes! All of those! I thought I would study philosophy and psychology and I remember spending one late night in the library and thinking I can’t make head nor tail of this, and it’s not going to leave me much time for rugby or mountaineering, so I switched to basic economics and played a reasonable amount of sport. I was also active, particularly at Sussex, in the student co-op and the bar. In the bar, the rule was that, the night you served, you drunk for free, which I thought was a great idea.
FRASER: Sounds dangerous?
KEITH: I still remember to this day, this would have been in the early 70s, that a pint was 10p. It was interesting though. None of the people running the bar got trolleyed. It was run incredibly well – so as well as learning how to drink, I learnt how to tap and spile (manage barrels of cask ale), in the days when the Campaign for Real Ale was just taking off.
FRASER:After graduating, you considered a career in academia, but ended up joining the Civil Service in 1979, the year that Margaret Thatcher came to power. What prompted that move and what was the experience like?
KEITH: I originally did postgraduate work up at Warwick that was absolutely fascinating and I really did think that I wanted to be an academic.But one of the things I had to do was teach residual maths to economists – students whose maths wasn’t good enough to pass their economics degree. And to cut a long story short, I found I wasn’t very good at the teaching – I lacked the patience! So rather than going on and doing a PhD, I decided to join the real world. I applied to both the Bank of England and to the Government’s economic service and got the job at the Bank of England.
“I received a letter and it said: “Dear Mr. Skeoch, blah, blah, blah, we’re terribly sorry, this has never happened before in the Bank of England, here’s one-and-a-half years’ salary.” So that wasn’t bad!”
However, Mrs Thatcher came in and it was the year in which they abolished exchange controls and decided not to take any graduates on after all, so I was made redundant before I had even joined. But I received a letter and it said: “Dear Mr. Skeoch, blah, blah, blah, we’re terribly sorry, this has never happened before in the Bank of England, here’s one-and-a-half years’ salary.” So that wasn’t bad! Then I picked up the phone to the Government economic service and said: “I’ve been thinking about this job for a while…” Fortunately it was still vacant. I went to work for them but the guy who was mentoring me knew my real interest was in monetary economics and pointed out an interesting job in the private sector.
FRASER: So you switched to James Capel, now HSBC Securities. What did you learn from that period?
KEITH: One of the great things about that time with exchange controls coming off was that nobody had really invested abroad and knew how the international monetary system worked. I had a great advantage in that I not only knew where the Bundesbank was, I actually knew what it did. I spent a long time helping to build up our presence. It started with four of us and, by the time I left, we had around 400 macro guys. It was massively exciting. The intellectual debate was huge, whether you were a monetarist or a Keynesian. The challenge of forecasting stuff was in a different place. I say to young colleagues who are doing economics here, with inflation at about two per cent a year, forecasting is not too difficult – but at that time, it was over two per cent a month. Being at the centre of that and getting out and talking to clients and growing the business into a global one was a fantastic experience.
FRASER: So you’d found your ‘thing’ and in 1999 you were asked to join Standard Life Investments. How did that come about?
KEITH: I loved research and became one of three people running research worldwide – economic quantitative methods and investment strategy. At the tail end of my time, I was persuaded to step down from the research and run international equities, which meant running sales, training, research, pretty much everything. But, because of the Big Bang, international stockbroking, where you give advice to clients, had turned into what we now call investment banking, and I’m afraid I didn’t like it. I was 41 or 42 and thought I was making a big step up. I was on the board of James Capel/HSBC Securities, but the one thing I had retained was relationship management because I was one of the few people there who was in touch with all the clients – and one of those clients was Standard Life.
One of the things we used to do with clients – I don’t suppose this happens any more – is that we used to have a very long traditional Christmas lunch. You’d go on a Friday, and it would last all afternoon. We had a competition at this particular lunch of ‘guess the best stock, guess the best market’ and it was really very jolly apart from the guy who was sitting next to me. He kept going on and on about how Standard Life Investments didn’t have a Chief Investment Officer. So I just kept saying “very good, wish you well etc”.
I got back to London after Christmas and, being a bit thick, I told a friend of mine what had a happened and he said “you idiot, they want to know if you’re interested”. So I thought, bugger, this is a problem because they’re a major client and, if I didn’t want the job, they might be offended. So, to cut a long story short, I went up for an interview with Sandy Crombie. I was expecting that it wouldn’t be exciting – who would want to go and work for a boring Scottish life company? But he was very intriguing and persuasive and, after about six weeks, they offered me the job. I was going to stay for two years to get experience of another industry and, 20 years later, I’m still here.
FRASER: You obviously enjoyed the way the job started – what were those first couple of years like?
KEITH: They were fascinating because the task was to take the investment side of a life assurance business and create an asset manager and I still remember the way that Sandy described it. He said, we have £67bn of assets, but only run £5bn of that for the outside world – so we’ve got critical mass with a blank sheet of paper. What he wanted me to do was build an investment process that would deliver performance, and turn a UK company into a global company. At that stage, I didn’t even think of Standard Life as a UK company but an Edinburgh company – although I didn’t like to mention that!
“We have £67bn of assets, but only run £5bn of that for the outside world.”
Sandy also said he wanted me to attract talent. So, for the first couple of years, we really acted as a start-up, getting the word out, looking to do something different, convincing the client and customer base and the investment banks that we were attractive so we could get momentum and pull talent into Edinburgh. Apologies to the Edinburgh headhunting community but I didn’t want Edinburgh-based head-hunters that talked to the Edinburgh diaspora. I said, let’s go back to the head-hunters who said they wouldn’t do it because it was too difficult and I’ll explain to them why this is a wonderful challenge to move talent from London. The rest is history. It was very successful. And things really kicked off after Standard Life went through its near-death experience, which was quite a thought-provoking time.
FRASER: For those that are not aware, what was that near-death experience?
KEITH: In 2003, Standard Life was still a mutual and the regulator changed the rules to solvency capital and we nearly went bust. So we had to go through a demutualisation process and float on the Stock Exchange, as well as create a strategy and a business plan that allowed us to raise the money. That was quite a formative experience because Standard Life had been a mutual since 1925, founded in 1825. So its behaviours and its mindsets were ingrained and taking people into a different kind of environment was absolutely fascinating.
FRASER: You were then asked to become Chief Executive of Standard Life Investments, transforming the business over the next nine years. Talk us through that.
KEITH: When Standard Life went through demutualisation, Sandy Crombie came to me. He had been promoted to CEO and he said, “I want you to step up and be the chief executive officer of Standard Life Investments.” And I said: “Well, I’m sorry Sandy, I’m having so much fun, I’m doing what I love, markets, people and investing, so I don’t want to do it.” So, he said: “Well that’s disappointing. I’ll tell you what, why don’t you help me recruit the right person because you’re going to be quite important in all this.” So over the next three months, we interviewed people and I came out each time and said “I don’t think so, or not on your nelly”. And then it dawned on me that, actually, I was rather passionate about the job and the sensible thing to do was to step up and take it. Sandy Crombie is very clever.
FRASER: In 2015, you became Chief Executive of Standard Life and, shortly afterwards, navigated the merger with Aberdeen Asset Management. What’s your perspective on that now?
KEITH: We had always said that our strategy post-IPO, post-demutualisation, was about building a capital-light business because there was no benefit in trying to deploy our balance sheet to create a guarantee that people weren’t prepared to pay for. So we wanted to get ourselves out of the insurance regime. The other reason for that was that insurance books are long-lived but eventually they leave the business and then they pay out. And there is a point at which these books start to run down and you can’t decommission the infrastructure as fast as the book runs off. So it just becomes a unit cost problem, and it’s pretty horrible if you’re in that space. So we knew we were facing up to the fact that we needed to get value to help shape the business. And given all the change that was happening in the world, we felt we needed scale.
“Mergers are tough and difficult and there’s a lot of short-term pain associated with it but it was the right thing to do.”
Martin Gilbert (CEO of Aberdeen Asset Management) felt that Aberdeen needed scale too. Actually, mergers in asset management, which are really people businesses, are incredibly difficult to do. You’ve got to find something that is complementary. However, Standard Life Investments is largely multi-assets and developed markets; while Aberdeen is largely emerging markets. And, out of the top 100 clients, we only had four that were in common. So there was a good chance to make the merger work. And getting scale in the asset management business allowed us to sell some of the insurance books to build the kind of company we have today. Getting through it is a transformative process though. Mergers are tough and difficult and there’s a lot of short-term pain associated with it but it was the right thing to do.
FRASER: Following the merger, you became co-CEO with Martin Gilbert – an unusual arrangement. The media speculated about shareholder suggestions that this might be not be the best structure and, a couple of years later, you became the sole CEO again. How did being a co-CEO work for you?
KEITH: It was great! I don’t think the shareholders had an issue with it. The people that seemed to have an issue with it were the ladies and gentlemen of the press, who created a lot of noise. Martin and I get on like a house on fire, and we didn’t have any major decision that we disagreed about. We knew what we were both good at and, as I said to somebody at the time, Martin is 63 and I’m 62 – we’re hardly a couple of pups desperate to compete with each other. All that was important was that we made a success of it and delivered the vision, so we got on with it.
FRASER: Why did Martin move up to a chairmanship role then?
KEITH: One of the issues of operating in a modern regulatory entity is that it is quite constraining in terms of what you have to do and where you need to be. For instance, there was an evening where we were signing off the deal to sell Standard Life Assurance Limited to Phoenix and Martin was down in Bali at the IMF conference seeing clients. And the final signing was late – it was so late, it was something like 4am for him. But because he was a co-CEO, he had to do the signing. But actually, we needed Martin bouncing about with the clients. So, there was a point at which, with a lot of the heavy lifting done, we thought we should generate a different arrangement, and cut out the external noise. We now have a single CEO with Martin acting as Vice Chairman of Standard Life Aberdeen plc and Chairman of Aberdeen Standard Investments.
FRASER: What do you see as the main challenges and opportunities for the overall industry now and, specifically, for Standard Life Aberdeen?
KEITH: As an industry, we’ve got two big challenges. We’re living in a world where there is a lot of economic and political destruction. We’re probably seeing the steady erosion over time of large-scale institutional investors and time benefits schemes. And, as regulation makes it more difficult to have large collective investment vehicles on insurance balance sheets, where you are using your capital to provide a guarantee, you end up with a process that I rather pompously call the ‘democratisation of financial risk’. In other words, people are having to take more and more responsibility for their own financial future. So, in my industry, we need to come to terms with serving small balance sheets as opposed to very large balance sheets. The return environment is going to be very different over the next 10 years relative to the last 20 or 30 years and the way in which we manufacture the investment return will be very different. We need to think about broader base solutions that we take to individuals rather than creating products that we can go and sell.
“People are having to take more and more responsibility for their own financial future. So, in my industry, we need to come to terms with serving small balance sheets as opposed to very large balance sheets.”
There’s also a huge issue of rebuilding trust. Trust in financial services is very low, trust in experts is very low and, actually, trust in the corporate sector is pretty low too – which I think is odd given that most people in the private sector work for some kind of corporate entity. We need to show up and we need to operate through a social licence. We’re expanding our retail business, expanding our advice business. We are thinking about how we manufacture broad-based solutions that we can take to clients and customers rather than just selling and pushing a load of products.
We’re also firm about our very strong long-term heritage in environmental, social and corporate governance and stewardship. As our Chief Investment Officer Rod Paris was saying recently: “We’re in a rather unusual situation, we need to start preaching what we practice, not the other way around.” There is a narrative that that needs to be rolled out in society and, as the UK’s largest independent fund manager, we need to play our role in forming that narrative.
FRASER: You’ve come a long way since that economics degree. Do you still view your CEO role through the prism of an economist?
KEITH: I’d like to say no but it’s probably a bit like being a recovering alcoholic – I can only ever be a recovering economist. So it does shape the way I view things. It’s a discipline. I can’t help it but I think it’s served me well and I also think it’s a lot more practical than the old joke about the scientist and the economist who are stranded on a desert island with a stack of tinned food but no tools. The scientist devises an ingenious mechanism for getting the tins open; the economist merely says: “assume we have a can opener”. I don’t think I’m that kind of economist – I hope not!
FRASER: You’ve steered the business through extraordinary times of change. How do you relax and how much longer do you want to go on doing this?
KEITH: I’ve always had the view that you should do what you enjoy and, if you don’t enjoy it, stop doing it. One of the things that I am blessed with in asset management is being around very interesting people. I am also very fortunate to have a wife who keeps me grounded. How long will I go on? Well, that’s probably for the Chairman to decide. I think it’s safe to say that, as I’m 63 in November, I’m probably closer to the end of my career than I’ve ever been!
In November 1870, two weather-beaten men entered the Bank of California in San Francisco seeking to make a deposit. Their names were Philip Arnold and John Slack. Arnold, a Kentuckian, a Mexican War veteran and a Gold Rush ‘Forty-Niner’, had spent the intervening years working in mining operations in the West. Less was known about Slack other than that he was the cousin of Arnold.
The men’s deposit was a small quantity of rough diamonds, which they claimed to have discovered ‘in great store’ in the desert. Upon being given receipt of the deposit, nothing more was said and the men took their leave. But in an age of rampant speculation and post-Civil War optimism, Arnold and Slack’s modest deposit – still more the location of its discovery – was never going to remain a secret for very long in San Francisco. Soon, the Founder and President of the Bank of California, W.C. Ralston, was courting the pair in a bid to encourage them to enter negotiations and ultimately part with their rights.
Though initially coy, Arnold and Slack eventually agreed to a preliminary inspection of the field. Ralston, who by this point had partnered with two prominent California businessmen, George D. Roberts and William M. Lent, was permitted to select two inspectors who would make the trip blindfolded and satisfy themselves with the nature of the field. This they did, and quickly returned with a report that is said to have sent Ralston and his associates wild. More diamonds were found, and the genuineness of the field confirmed.
At this point, Arnold and Slack agreed to visit the field alone and return with approximately $2 million worth of diamonds as a guarantee of good faith. They came back with a buckskin package full of rough diamonds, which they estimated to be worth $1 million. They said they had lost an identical package making a river crossing, but the remaining package and their allegation that they had struck a spot enormously rich in diamonds (and other precious stones besides) while out in the field was more than sufficient to satisfy Ralston and his associates. By now, and according to Asbury Harpending, a financier and adventurer who later became General Manager of the enterprise, Ralston’s description of the field ‘made Sinbad look like a novice’. At a low estimate, Ralston valued it at $50 million – over a billion dollars in today’s money.
THE FIELD OF DREAMS
The next stage was for the stones to be expertly verified, for which purpose Charles Lewis Tiffany – ‘then, as now, the greatest American authority on precious stones,’ according to Harpending in The Great Diamond Hoax and Other Stirring Episodes in the Life of Asbury Harpending: An Epic of Early California– was sent a small sample. Tiffany’s immediate verdict upon eying the stones has gone down in history: ‘Gentlemen, these are beyond question precious stones of enormous value.’ The jeweller then submitted them to his lapidary and returned with further proof of their legitimacy, valuing the sample at no less than $150,000.
Before fully wiping out the interests of Arnold and Slack – who had already received cash payoffs totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars – Ralston and his associates organised for an independent mining engineer to conduct a full examination of the field. The engineer chosen was called Henry Janin, who, it was said, ‘had the record of having examining something over 600 mines, without once making a mistake, certainly without ever having caused his clients to lose a dollar by his bad judgement.’ With $100,000 placed in escrow for them pending Janin’s report, Arnold and Slack led the engineer, Ralston and a party of associates (including Harpending) to the field for the first time. The first diamond was found within minutes and, thereafter, Harpending claims the party ‘began having all kinds of luck’, finding rubies, sapphires and emeralds in addition to abundant diamonds, in the ground, on top of ant hills, everywhere. Rumours later circulated that stones had been found in the forks of trees, but Harpending dismissed them on account of the fact that there were no trees in the area. It was an egg hunt of inconceivable riches. The entire party, not least Arnold and Slack, were ecstatic – and they were only scraping the surface.
Slack agreed to stand guard at the field while the rest of the party returned to San Francisco to established the San Francisco and New York Mining and Commercial Company, with a capital stock of $10 million divided into 100,000 shares. Twenty-five men – ‘the cream of the crop of financial interests, men of national reputation and personal integrity,’ according to Harpending – were invited to subscribe for stock. As for Arnold and Slack, a final cash payment of $300,000, written out to Arnold, wiped out their interests. With winter approaching, no mining would take place for the rest of the year, but the 25 men of the San Francisco and New York Mining and Commercial Company were expecting to be made millionaires many times over in the spring of 1873.
THE HOAX IS REVEALED
In October 1872, almost two years after Arnold and Slack presented themselves at the Bank of California, Clarence King, a geologist and mining engineer in the service of the United States government, visited the field, which was now by rights owned by the San Francisco and New York Mining and Commercial Company. A German prospector accompanied him, and ‘every now and then pocket[ed] a sparkler that he valued at a small fortune’.
It was one of these so-called sparklers that ironically led to the collapse of the San Francisco and New York Mining and Commercial Company. King and his German associate found a half-cut diamond; that is to say, one that bore the marks of the lapidary’s art. ‘Look here, Mr King,’ the German supposedly said. ‘This is the bulliest field as never was. It not only produces diamonds but cuts them moreover also!’ Soon the pair had found several other half-cut specimens.
Diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires are found under wildly different geological conditions, certainly not in the same field. This, according to Harpending, was ‘a fact that ought to have made a goat do some responsible thinking’.
One can only begin to guess what went through the minds of the men behind the San Francisco and New York Mining and Commercial Company when they received King’s telegram denouncing the field as ‘fraudulent and plainly salted’, and stating that a ‘wholesale fraud’ had been committed. And as if the half-cut diamonds weren’t evidence enough, King ventured to inform them that the ant hills upon which stones were found were clearly handmade; that stones were found down holes clearly poked with instruments; and that stones were found clearly lodged into gaps in rock formations. Perhaps King’s most enlightening revelation was his assertion that diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires are found under wildly different geological conditions, certainly not in the same field. This, according to Harpending, was ‘a fact that ought to have made a goat do some responsible thinking’.
So what of Henry Janin? It appears that even the mining engineer ‘without peer in the United States, and maybe even the world,’ wasn’t infallible. Harpending notes that it was Tiffany’s valuation of the diamonds that disarmed Janin, and that Janin more than once admitted his mission in visiting the field was merely to verify its true extent. As for Tiffany’s valuation itself, Harpending considers it hard to comprehend, ‘unless regarded in connection with another fact – that valuing cut stones and valuing stones in the rough are wildly different matters.’ While Tiffany was indeed an expert in the former, it’s doubtful whether a single real expert evaluator of rough diamonds was to be found in the United States at the time. And at a time when the entire civilized world had its eyes on the promised find, Tiffany had his reputation to uphold.
And then there were Arnold and Slack, the purported locators of the field. Their original deposit in the Bank of California consisted of rough diamonds and other gems they had procured during their years of prospecting. It had ‘[sunk] the hook deep’, according to an article in Smithsonian, and the incremental payoffs the pair had received are believed to have been used to fund three separate trips to Europe to purchase cheap rough diamonds with which they salted the field. One dealer in London later told the press that a ‘rather rough-looking American appeared at his place of business and asked to be shown what they had in the way of undergrade or rather refuse diamonds. He was shown a large stock of South African stones […] handsome enough, but of very small commercial value.’ Arnold – for it was almost certainly him – apparently pawed the stones over without the least regard for size or quality, before asking indifferently, ‘How much for the lot?’ It’s reckoned that about $35,000 was invested in the salting claims, leaving Arnold with an estimated $600,000 profit.
How much, if any, of this money made it into Slack’s pocket is not certain. The last time he was seen by any member of the party was when he agreed to remain at the field following Janin’s survey. He was assumed to have either fled the country or died soon afterwards, although there is evidence that he moved to New Mexico where he became an undertaker. Arnold, for his part, moved to Kentucky where he purchased a house and some 500 acres of land, and placed the lot in his wife’s name. Private detectives located him, and a grand jury in San Francisco indicted him for fraud, but it’s suspected that the duped investors quashed the indictment to avoid further negative publicity. He eventually agreed an out-of-court settlement with Lent to the tune of $150,000 – ‘his only acknowledgement, though tacit, that he had planted any diamonds,’ according to Smithsonian. In 1873, Arnold became a banker. His prosperity was short lived; he died of pneumonia whilst recovering from shotgun blast to the shoulder during a quarrel in 1878.
Despite Ralston and his associates having ultimately made good on the debts to investors, the banker’s body was pulled from the San Francisco Bay in 1875 in an apparent suicide.
ROUGH DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER?
Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.”– Erich Fromm
While mining hoaxes were commonplace in America’s West, particularly during the Gold Rush, the Great Diamond Hoax of 1872 was a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions unrivalled in its potential fallout. Had the San Francisco and New York Mining and Commercial Company been placed in any considerable quantity on the market, Harpending believes it would have caused, in just one month, ‘a catastrophe almost without parallel in the civilised world’.
One wonders what Harpending – and Ralston and the other members of the San Francisco and New York Mining and Commercial Company – would have made of the Wall Street crash, more than half a century later, or indeed every financial crash since, or the Watergate scandal, or the Cambridge Analytica files or the Bitcoin explosion.
It’s not difficult to draw parallels throughout history, nor unreasonable to suggest that, since its inception, money has always been a physical manifestation of greed that shackles us to make irrational decisions – the kind of decisions made by Ralston, Tiffany and Janin. But surely there exists a flip side to the coin. Surely there are ways to understand our interactions with money that don’t point to some inherent and irreversible sense of greed within us.
Well, we certainly think so. We’ve worked with brands in the financial services sector long enough to know that tarring everyone involved in the business of money with the same brush as bogeymen like Fred Goodwin (or Philip Arnold, for that matter) is far from fair. And so we dedicate this, the next edition of White Light’s Got Issues, to money – the good, the bad and the ugly. Over the coming weeks we’ll be taking a look at, amongst other things, the history of money and its evermore complex reliance on promise; money’s place in the pursuit of brand purpose; some of the world’s most unhappy billionaires; and whether or not we’re forever destined to lurch from one crisis to another in the world of finance.
In the meantime, we hope you’ve enjoyed the cautionary tale of the Great Diamond Hoax of 1872. And if you’re ever in Moffat County in Colorado, follow Road 167 three miles west to Diamond Wash Draw. There’s a flat-topped mountain to the south called Diamond Peak, and in a one-square-mile plain to the north you can still find salted gemstones. Not that you’d let greed get the better of you…
Winning the lottery, striking oil, and inheriting a lump sum. All seem like the answer to life’s greatest problems. However, does cash in the bank guarantee a happy, fulfilled life?
A 2010 Princeton study revealed that while money does buy happiness, the happiness of the individual plateaus at a specific point. Researchers found that up to $75,000, annual income closely correlates with emotional well-being. However, beyond this point, more income doesn’t generate more happiness. The study asserted that an American earning $575,000 per year isn’t likely to be any happier than one making $75,000 per year. Researchers also found that once the basic survival needs are met, food, shelter and amenities, money begins to have a lesser impact on overall happiness. Below are six millionaires who prove a surplus of wealth does not equate to a surplus of happiness.
1. Karl Rabeder
Following a trip to Hawaii, Australian millionaire, Karl Rabeder decided to give away his fortune after realising his wealth was making him an angry, lonely man. In 2010, Rabeder proceeded to sell all his interior furnishings, his Audi A8 and his £1.4 million mansion. The proceeds of the sale and his fortune were all donated to charities in Central and Latin America.
Currently, Rabeder resides in a small alpine hut and lectures worldwide on the importance of happiness over wealth.
2. Jane Park
The Lottery curse asserts that those who win the Lottery will be plagued with misfortune. For Jane Park, Britain’s youngest lottery winner, the curse proved true. In 2013 at the age of 17, Park won £1 million playing the Lottery. She quickly treated herself to designer handbags and a new car.
However, in 2017, in an interview with This Morning, she expressed the loneliness she felt. “I just became so lonely,” she said, “I had no one.” Jane kept her fortune but pursued a career in entertainment to feel more fulfilled.
3. Andre Agassi
The retired professional tennis player and former world No.1 enjoyed an illustrious career that spanned three decades. However, despite the millions in prize money, international recognition and wealth of success, Agassi grew to hate the sport that made him so wealthy.
“I play tennis for a living even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion and always have,” wrote Agassi in his 2009 autobiography. At this low point, Agassi used his fortune to find happiness. He founded the Andre Agassi Charitable Association that helps children reach their sporting potential. Agassi credits his charity work with restoring his joy and love of tennis.
4. Timothy S. Kim
At the age of 31, Timothy S. Kim had accomplished his dream. He had become a successful entrepreneur and self-made millionaire. However, he quickly realised that reaching this goal was not what he expected.
“When we, as a household, hit millionaire status earlier this year, I thought there would be trumpet fanfare, multi-coloured skittles shooting out of both ends of a rainbow, and leprechauns holding hands dancing in a circle,” wrote Timothy in a blog post. “Come to find out; it’s pretty meh. That’s how I felt: ‘meh’.”
Timothy reflected on his goals, shifted them away from money milestones and toward more meaningful goals. “At the end of the day, when I’m in my coffin being lowered down into my grave: all the money in my bank accounts — my I.R.A.s, my 401ks, my taxable accounts — will mean nothing. I’d be as dead as every other person in that graveyard. No different. So here’s what’s important: Legacy”.
5. Markus Persson
Markus Persson, the controversial creator of Minecraft, became a billionaire when he sold the game to Microsoft in 2014. In the years that followed, Persson revealed that life away from game creation had become isolated and meaningless.
“The problem with getting everything is you run out of reasons to keep trying, and human interaction becomes impossible due to imbalance,” he tweeted. “Hanging out in Ibiza with a bunch of friends and partying with famous people, able to do whatever I want, and I’ve never felt more isolated.”
6. Howard Hughes
Howard Hughes was an extremely successful American businessman, record-setting pilot and film director. Along with producing iconic films such as Hell’s Angels and Scarface, Hughes was also an accomplished aviator. During his lifetime, Hughes was one of the most financially successful individuals in the world.
Despite his success, Hughes was said to be extremely unhappy and became a social recluse. Plagued by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (O.C.D.), Hughes spent his later years taking drugs and watching movies.
In his book, Boxes – the Secret Life of Howard Hughes, Douglas Wellman asserts that Hughes’ money was often the source of his unhappiness. Hughes would often retire to the country to escape the problems that came with his millions.
“When he was in the movie business, he and actress Billie Dove took off and lived in a dirt-floor cabin in Arizona,” says Wellman. “He later commented that was one of the happiest periods in his life. He was an interesting man. He spent tons of money on movies and aircraft, but his own life was very, very simple.”
JESSICA ALBA’S (DIS)HONEST COMPANY
In 2011 Jessica Alba launched an all-natural cleaning and cosmetics range. The products were later found to contain chemicals that they themselves had put on a banned list. Despite Alba’s denial, the company’s reputation suffered heavily. Outsourcing production and distribution without thorough research can result in other companies sullying your own reputation. Your brand is only as strong as the weakest link in your supply chain.
KFC SWEARS IT’S SORRY
Remember what we said about staying true to your company name? Well in 2018 the famous fried chicken fast food chain chicken KFC ran out of (you guessed it) chicken. Marketing can be the very glue that holds you together and gets you out of those sticky situations. KFC rebutted the problem the best way they knew how: by laughing at themselves and creating the campaign, ‘The chicken did cross the road, just not to our stores.’ The campaign was accompanied by a full-page ‘apology’ in two national newspapers and featured an empty KFC bucket branded ‘FCK’.
There were a few disgruntled twitter customers who had to fall back on Burger King instead that week. The police were also compelled to issue a statement to say this was not a police matter but KFC managed to walk away with their brand intact.
DOVE SCRUBS UP BADLY – AGAIN
When bringing a new soap to the market, don’t show a black model transforming into a white model to showcase the cleaning qualities of your product – especially when your brand was built on the notion of empowering women, breaking stereotypes and busting beauty standards. To make matters worse, this wasn’t the first time they’d found themselves in hot water over presentation of race in their ads. Being a repeat offender makes rebuilding trust a much harder task. Once may look like a bug, but multiple strikes starts to look like a feature.
TWITTER EMPLOYEE TAKES HUMP, DUMPS TRUMP
Picture this. It’s your final day of work in the office and this is the very last time you will ever see the people sitting beside you. You get a familiar email that there has been misconduct on an account and so, with a click of your mouse, you suspend it before popping on your jacket and clock out for the last time. Now imagine that where you work is Twitter, and that account was none other than Donald Trump’s. The suspension lasted a mere 11 minutes but it certainly ruffled feathers. Named a ‘rogue’ by Trump himself (and a hero by others), the ex-Twitter employee has since admitted that it was a ‘mistake’.
AIRBNB BARGES INTO A CRISIS
Marketing is all about timing. What might seem like a good campaign may not suit the social climate of that time. Airbnb found this out the hard way when launching an email showcasing floating houses quoting ‘Stay above water’ at the same time that Hurricane Harvey was destroying Houston. The company has had a hard time building trust over the years and frequently finds itself at odds with city administrations – a fact that is only overcome by the admittedly strong customer experience it offers. Nevertheless, it seems particularly vulnerable to this type of misstep.
AINT NO PARTY LIKE #SUSANALBUMPARTY
Susan Boyle won over many Brits’ hearts in her X Factor hay day. To celebrate her newfound success and new album, she launched the Twitter hashtag campaign #susanalbumparty. We doubt sales suffered noticeably but Susan’s own level of trust in her social media managers may have.
Heinz’s tomato ketchup is a staple in many a fridge around the world, but an unsuspecting German customer got a fright when he scanned a QR code on his bottle of ketchup and was redirected to a pornography website. The domain to which the code pointed had lapsed and been re-bought by an adult website company. Heinz were left red-faced and scrambling to limit the damage. Meanwhile the adult site in question didn’t hesitate to capitalise on the opportunity by publicly offering the the customer free membership.
I’ve got carotene-induced night vision, curly hair as a result of eating crusts and a phobia of pulling faces in case the wind should suddenly change. What am I?
I am a child who has implicitly trusted my parents.
It’s just as well that as we grow up we eventually learn the reality behind the lies we are told as children – and their inherent whiteness. But what if the implicit trust we exhibited back then actually lasted into adulthood? Surely we’d trust taxi drivers to take the most efficient routes, baggage handlers to treat our suitcases with care and sellers of second-hand items to act in good faith. We’d trust utility providers to give us the best deals, car manufacturers to be honest about their emissions and banks to look after our savings. We’d even accept all news as truth, willingly consent to apparently legitimate data use and have unwavering faith in the promises our politicians make. Just imagine.
Perhaps, deep down, we never entirely lose touch with our naïve inclination to trust anyone and anything. As children, we are fed white lies for our own good, and trust in them because we know no better. As adults, we routinely put our trust on the line even when we know better. The taxi driver has a bad rating but still gets your custom. The bank is taking risks on your behalf but still gets your investment. The politician has made contradictory claims but still gets your vote. We are, contrary to classic economic theory, utterly irrational beings.
WHAT IS TRUST, AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?
The reality is that trust – or at least some base level of trust – is necessary for economic growth. If we were required to litigate during every single transaction or decision we ever made, the entire system would quickly come to a screeching halt. Trust is a lubricant of social interaction, and we use it to get things done.
Nowhere is the need more apparent than in the sharing economy – which is often, and appropriately, referred to as the trust economy. We sleep in the beds of strangers, ride in the cars of people we’ve never met and lend money to people on the other side of the world using new-fangled digital currencies that we might not fully understand. For many, this economy is the future. It’s how we’ll work, how we’ll travel and how we’ll live.
And yet, for a phenomenon regarded as a potential tenet of the future, we know surprisingly little about trust. It’s too messy, too subjective for accurate measurement. Besides, with an estimated value of £190 billion, isn’t the trust economy doing just fine for itself, without the need for a proper qualitative analysis of trust itself?
“Cracks are showing in the ‘promised’ trust economy. And why? The reason is simple: we can’t be trusted.”
The devil is in the detail. In fact, it’s sometimes in the mainstream media. Uber has been plagued by sexual assault claims levelled against its drivers. Money launderers have capitalised on the semi-anonymous and decentralised nature of cryptocurrencies since they were introduced. Even a simple, well-meaning venture such as dockless bicycle sharing has resulted in piles of discarded bicycles littering city streets. In other words, cracks are showing in the ‘promised’ trust economy. And why? The reason is simple: we can’t be trusted.
A paradox, then. We have a tendency to trust people and yet we ourselves aren’t always worthy of trust. Rachel Botsman, the author of the book The Rise Of Collaborative Consumption told the publication Fast Company that we’re experiencing ‘a seismic shift from individual getting and spending towards a rediscovery of collective good’. The Independent, however, reported that we’re not actually hardwired to care about this collective good; rather, what we care about is maximising our own resources.
“We want a cheap holiday and are willing to throw caution to the wind. While we’re away, we don’t want our apartment to sit empty when we could be using it to foot the bill of said holiday. We want a car to pick us up and take us home. Getting a cheap ride is more important that knowing that our driver is safe, reliable and honest.”
Can this be true? Are we really primarily driven – like good little rational beings – by maximising our own resources after all?
I decided to take matters into my own hands and run an internal experiment known as the ‘trust game’. One player – referred to as the ‘trustor’ – is given a set amount of money and the opportunity to either invest or not invest in an project, which is administered by the other player, who is referred to as the ‘trustee’. Any investment made by the trustee is trebled. However, the trustee controls the proceeds of the investment. He or she can either share them with the trustor or keep them.
THIS IS A VISUALISATION OF THE EXPERIMENT:
I split six colleagues into three pairs. These are the results:
The Trustor invested two coins, keeping eight. The Trustee received six back and returned half to the Trustor.
“A little trust begets a little trust.”
The Trustor invested nine coins, keeping one. The Trustee received 27 back and returned all of them to the Trustor.
“A lot of trust begets a lot of trust.”
The Trustor invested eight coins, keeping two. The Trustee received six back and returned half to the Trustor.
“The one can spoil it for the many.”
The amount of investment observed in the game is a measure of the amount of trust exhibited by trustors. The amount of investment proceeds given back to trustors is a measure of the amount of trustworthiness exhibited by trustees.
Under this interpretation, the outcome predicted by economics, which assumes absolute rationality, is grim. The investor, foreseeing that the allocator would keep the entire proceeds of any investment, would refuse to invest in the first place. Yet this never happened; all three trustors chose to invest, putting paid to the idea that we are entirely rational when it comes to money.
It should be noted that this experiment was conducted in anything but test conditions. Chocolate coins instead of cash, familiar subjects entirely suspicious of the whole affair and far too little data to return anything truly meaningful. If any conclusion can be drawn, it is that some people exhibit trust more freely than others – not exactly a socioeconomic revelation.
The mechanics of the experiment reveal considerably more. While economics would predict a no-investment scenario, the most beneficial outcome for both parties looks different. Were a trustor to invest the total amount of money – which would then be trebled – and the investor to then pay out half of that, both trustor and trustee win in equilibrium.
Because of its (growing) importance in driving economic growth, social scientists have spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to understand trust. The beauty of the trust game is its laying bare of the fact that, where there is trust there can be deeper, more efficient and more beneficial social interaction.
“We’re entering the era of ‘trust marketing’, where the act of building relationships is of paramount importance to brands.”
Trust, then – whether between families, neighbours, colleagues, business partners or countries, is one of our most valuable commodities – but in order to harness its full potential we need to learn how to properly build it. Over the coming weeks and months we’ll be publishing a series of features centred on the theme of trust in relation to marketing and communications. We’ll be getting to grips with blockchain, taking a look at how trust can be built on the inside of a business and how the mainstream media got it so wrong. We’ll also be considering how a decade ago, UK banks possessed a level of trust that most brands today could only dream of – and whether that trust can ever be fully regained. As recently noted by Marketing Week, consumer trust in social media platforms and advertising is at an all-time low. More than ever, audiences are craving transparency, authenticity and credibility from brands. Trust needs to be revitalised in marketing – as it does in a great deal more industries – not just because it’s at a low ebb but because the future will depend on it. We’re entering the era of ‘trust marketing’, where the act of building relationships is of paramount importance to brands.
In the meantime, if you’d like to learn how content can increase trust, you’re in the right place. If you’ve got a project you think would benefit from the White Light approach, drop us a line and tell us all about it.
So what exactly is content marketing? It’s the sharing of creative, editorially led content that nurtures positive interaction between a brand and its audience.
Satisfied? Probably not. Even content marketers have to revert to and review definitions from time to time. Bear with us, though, for the following questions and answers will fully colour our definition, explaining the what, why and how of content marketing.
- What is ‘content’?
- Are there different types of content?
- How does content marketing differ from traditional marketing?
- Can I do content on a shoestring budget?
- Can content marketing boost SEO?
- Does content marketing drive sales?
- Can ROI be measured?
- When will I start seeing results?
- Isn’t my industry too boring for this?
- How do I start producing content?
- Does content marketing work in B2B scenarios?
- What is a content marketing strategy?
WHAT IS ‘CONTENT’?
Content is simply information – the things brands tell their customers, their employees or their stakeholders. Content marketing is concerned with presenting that information to these audiences in timely, meaningful, compelling and measurable ways.
ARE THERE DIFFERENT TYPES OF CONTENT?
Content marketing isn’t just a case of publishing blog posts – infographics, magazines, podcasts, email newsletters and video all come into play. Here are another 105 different types of content for starters.
HOW DOES CONTENT MARKETING DIFFER FROM TRADITIONAL MARKETING?
Whereas traditional marketing is about ‘selling’ to potential customers, content marketing is about helping them, and thus nurturing a positive interaction (see the first question).
The best way to demonstrate this is with an example:
Bob is seeking the services of a professional oven cleaner. Where before he might have turned to the Yellow Pages, now he does a quick web search: ‘professional oven cleaner in my area’. The search returns several businesses, so he clicks on the one at the top of the list.
Bob is taken to a well-designed, responsive homepage. Curious for more information, he browses the website’s blog where he finds several posts of interest. One is a list detailing a dozen of the worst foodstuffs for soiling ovens. Bob is reminded about the goose he cooked last Christmas. Another is a video tutorial on how to replace an oven light bulb. Bob is reminded that he needs to do this and now knows exactly how. Another explores the environmental impact of off-the-shelf oven-cleaning chemicals – and explains how this particular professional’s chemicals are environmentally friendly. This appeals to Bob.
Inspired – and now signed up to the oven cleaner’s monthly e-newsletter after a prompt – Bob finds himself on the ‘about’ section of the website. Here, he is encouraged by a selection of recent testimonials. He decides to click through to the contact page and get in touch with the oven cleaner. The two agree a price and a time there and then.
Even when an activity risked doing the oven cleaner out of a job, it was actually building up a positive interaction between him and his customer – the sort of interaction that results in satisfaction and loyalty
The next morning, the oven cleaner arrives at Bob’s house and carries out the work. Before leaving, he hands Bob a short brochure on basic oven maintenance. It’s got the same look and feel as the website. Thoroughly impressed, Bob decides to leave a review on the oven cleaner’s Facebook page. While here, he discovers from client posts that the oven cleaner also services microwaves, hobs and extractor fans. He bears this in mind.
Next year, Bob receives an e-voucher from the oven cleaner notifying him it’s been a year since he had his oven professionally cleaned. Although Bob has stayed on top of things, what with all the advice he’s taken from the oven cleaner’s monthly e-newsletter, brochure and regular blog posts, it simply wouldn’t have been Christmas without a goose – and so the voucher has come at a good time.
A SHAREABLE EXPERIENCE
On the following day, Bob’s oven looks as good as new. He decides to post a before-and-after photograph on his Facebook page, tagging in the oven cleaner. Within minutes a friend of Bob’s has seen the photograph and is browsing the oven cleaner’s website …
The secret to the oven cleaner’s marketing success lies in his helpfulness – a searchable and responsive website, useful blog content and print materials, regular e-mail campaigns, engaging social media activity and a loyalty programme. Even when an activity risked doing the oven cleaner out of a job (distributing advice on oven maintenance), it was actually building up a positive interaction between him and his customer – the sort of interaction that results in satisfaction and loyalty.
Content marketing might take more work and time than traditional marketing efforts, but the results are long term and can be considerably more meaningful. Today’s consumers are tuning out of invasive sales messages and sales pitches; what they’re really looking for is your help.
BUT I’M ON A SHOESTRING BUDGET…
Whereas traditional marketing could be focused on quantity, content marketing is a matter of quality and timeliness. The very best content is meticulously researched and planned in accordance with a schedule, and should be reusable across multiple platforms to maximise efficiency.
CAN CONTENT MARKETING BOOST SEO?
Absolutely – SEO is a major aspect of content marketing. Savvy content marketers know what constitutes good SEO practice so that content can be both created and distributed in such a way as to maximise the chances of it being found and engaged with online.
DOES CONTENT MARKETING DRIVE SALES?
Yes, but not in the same way as traditional marketing. Content marketers rely on different types of content to target people at different stages along the customer funnel. For example, a company might attract potential customers with keywords and social media activity; get them to start considering becoming paying customers through a website and blog posts; fully convert them with case studies and calls-to-action; and retain them with regular email campaigns and customised promotions.
CAN CONTENT MARKETING ROI BE MEASURED?
Content marketing is a results game. The most agile content marketers rely on data analytics to inform content creation and development, in order to prove return on investment.
Helpful content is never boring for those who need it
WHEN WILL I START SEEING RESULTS?
Content marketing isn’t an off-the-shelf solution. It’s a long-term commitment made by a business to a) understand their customers’ content needs and b) meet those needs. The best campaigns take time to implement, are measured constantly and are always changing.
ISN’T MY INDUSTRY TOO BORING FOR THIS?
If you’ve got customers then your industry can’t be boring. Remember what we said about content marketing being all about helping customers? Helpful content is never boring for those who need it. If someone is looking for information on how to clean an oven and you can provide it, then you’re onto a winner.
HOW DO I START CONTENT MARKETING?
This really depends on your business and, more importantly, your business’s aims. Again, content marketing isn’t an off-the-shelf solution; those in the know will take time to audit current marketing efforts, decide what formats will work best and develop full strategies.
DOES CONTENT MARKETING WORK WITH B2B?
Certainly – in fact, some of the best content marketing campaigns out there are for B2B. Content for this type of strategy tends to be highly specialised and often niche, but that doesn’t make it any less pertinent to its audience when done well.
WHAT IS A CONTENT MARKETING STRATEGY?
A considerable number of companies attempt to do content marketing without getting a content strategy in place. Content marketing is part of a company’s broader marketing strategy, and as such it needs a strategy of its own in order to work. This strategy should analyse the ways in which content can be utilised across customer journeys and different functions within a business.
If you’d like a taster of our thinking, we’d be very happy to provide you with a free content audit. The audit would look at your current content marketing strategy and how it’s being delivered, offering ideas for making it more effective. If you’re interested simply contact Eric Campbell.
Personally, I like to think that I was overlooked when anxieties were being handed out. The clichéd notion of ‘having a bad week’, so often the hallmark of everyday anxiety, is one I rarely have. To be sure, age and circumstance may change this, but for the time being I lead a life largely unaffected by anxiety – and I’m taking that as a blessing.
Unfortunately, my colleagues recently took it as vindication of my nomination to be put through a week’s worth of challenges entirely engineered to make me as anxious as possible. I was the ideal crash test dummy for gauging the effects of anxiety for this debut issue – an even-tempered nine-till-five copywriter with no prior history of the disorder, no public reputation to taint and no in-laws to consider (a concern given some of the events planned).
I was to face six consecutive challenges, each playing on a common phobia. While still working my job, I would wake up knowing that, as well as the usual workload, I was also to do something I really didn’t want to do – be it a bungee jump, a stand-up comedy gig or a nude swim. And that’s really the best way to explain my attitude towards the whole experience in the beginning: I just didn’t want to do this.
For the first time in 25 years, I think I was feeling anxious.
THE BUNGEE JUMP
The Garry Bridge in Perthshire, Scotland stretches across a deep, tree-lined gorge. Some 130 feet below, the River Garry winds its slow course. It’d be a picture postcard scene, were it not for the imposing steel walkway and cradle suspended on the bridge’s underside.
I ‘check in’ with Highland Fling Bungee half an hour before my scheduled jump. This also allows for me to be weighed more times than I care to remember, and for my weight to be written in permanent marker on the back of my hand. I’m comforted by the knowledge that I’ve clocked in beneath the 23.6 stone weight limit.
Any sense of comfort has dissipated by the time I arrive at the bridge and climb up to the walkway, though. Here, I’m weighed again and the figure on the back of my hand is verified. The all-important harness connecting me to the bungee rope is a surprisingly small Velcro affair wrapped tightly around my lower legs.
Jumps are conducted in batches. This morning there are two of us, and I’m second up. The first jumper appears to have done this before, but even he seems surprised by the swiftness with which he is guided to the very edge of the cradle and counted in. I watch as he looks towards the horizon, crouches, propels himself forward, screams and disappears. The entire cradle jolts as the rope fully extends and sends him reeling back up towards the bridge, and then back down again. My weight is verified one last time as he’s being reeled in.
I’ve heard that bungee jumping is more intense than skydiving, for the simple fact that you see the ground coming at you far quicker. A free fall from this height – the equivalent of 12 storeys – is enough for a jumper to reach 50 miles per hour and come uncomfortably close to the shallow water below, all in just a few seconds. Even some of the qualified jump masters, who go by the mantra ‘no jump, no job’, apparently don’t like doing it more than they have to.
True to form, it’s the speed that gets me. I remember leaving the platform and hearing a noise as if I’d stuck my head out of a car window at speed, and then bouncing back up, but not the actual fall. And before I know it, I’m being winched back up to the cradle, watching upside down as the River Garry winds its course below, feeling giddy, euphoric and a little bit sick.
THE ISOLATION POD
The backroom of a health and beauty spa in Portobello, Edinburgh houses a peculiar machine, sort of like a giant white pebble. It is about the size of a small car and periodically comes to life, bubbling within. It is an isolation tank, and for the next hour I’m going to be shut inside it – alone and deprived of all of my senses in confined quarters.
Stepping into the neon water, it’s hard to tell the difference between it and the air above. It’s maintained at body temperature and contains a copious amount of Epsom salt, making it curiously buoyant. Ears plugged, I lie down, pulling the lid with me as I go. Eventually, both background music and light fade, and I’m left in total, silent, impalpable, odourless, tasteless darkness.
I vividly imagine that this is what being lost in space feels like, or even being buried alive, only in a very roomy and perversely comfortable coffin
The first manifestation of sensory deprivation appears to be a gradual amplification of internal sounds – that is, sounds my body is making. An eyelid opening sounds like a knuckle cracking. A knuckle cracking, meanwhile, sounds like the crack of a whip. Less explicit but considerably more perturbing are the properly internal sounds – my heart thumping within my chest, blood circulating, muscle fibres loosening and air rushing in and out of my lungs – sounds I’ve lived with my entire life but never heard in such synchronised clarity.
Next comes a complete lack of orientation. At a very precise point during the session I lose all sense of direction – and the resulting feeling is alien in the extreme. I begin to imagine, vividly, that this is what being lost in space feels like, or even being buried alive, only in a very roomy and perversely comfortable coffin. Which is to say I’m now experiencing the third manifestation of sensory deprivation: hallucination.
The practice of sensory deprivation came about during the Cold War, in a setting far less savoury than a spa: it was initially used as a means of preparing American GIs who might be taken hostage and subjected to mind-control techniques. Later, it was suspected that the Communists were in fact using sensory deprivation as a mind-control technique in itself. The CIA doubled their efforts to master the apparatus, despite complaints that it was effectively torture. ‘Participants’ experienced powerful hallucinations and drastic reductions in cognitive ability.
Thankfully, sensory deprivation is now primarily used for relaxation and rehabilitation purposes – but regardless, I entered this tank with negative preconceptions. On the one hand, this is a blessing. I never fully lose awareness of where I am or what I am doing. And yet the whole time I am conscious of the past potential of this practice – and I genuinely believe I am beginning to realise it, my mind relaxed yet racing from thought to thought, the one real, the other surreal, feeling trapped but also liberated before the backdrop of a total lack of coordination and the cacophony of heart beating, muscle fibres relaxing, lungs breathing.
And then everything stops. A gentle rippling has started near my feet. A familiar music creeps in. Light gradually fills the water. Everything is as it was when I first entered the tank, only now I feel phenomenally well rested to the point of being sedated. I take a shower and saunter through to a room where some herbal tea is waiting for me, before entering the cool evening air for the journey home. The sensation lasts well into the night.
THE OVERNIGHT VIGIL
There is nothing untoward about 25 Palmerston Place in Edinburgh, a traditional, four-storey Victorian townhouse gracing the city’s New Town. Nothing, except that it is allegedly haunted.
Coincidentally (or conveniently, depending on your attitude), 25 Palmerston Place operates as a spiritualist centre and houses a dedicated spiritualist church. Named after the famed Edinburgh-born author and spiritualist, the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Centre is the setting for my third challenge: an overnight vigil. I am to join a group of spiritualists from the Scottish Society for Psychical Research, taking it in turns to stake out various locations around the building in total silence and darkness and record any paranormal happenings.
One investigator admits having given in to an irresistible urge to leave her posting seat in the basement and look behind the doors of three storerooms
My first posting is a corridor in the basement of the building. To my right is a trio of storerooms, while to my left is the entrance to what my map informs me is a kitchen. Lacking any kind of spiritual bent, it stands to reason that I’m struggling. Not so a neighbouring investigator who, sitting near the entrance to the kitchen, is furiously scribbling notes under torchlight. I’m inclined to enquire, but collusion is prohibited. Instead, I stare intently in the direction she is, half hoping to witness something, anything, that I might note down.
The majority of my postings throughout the vigil follow a similar pattern, and my notes reflect the fact. At the very least I’ve been able to grade each location according to uncanniness, and in one instance I’ve even documented a cold sensation around my ankles. As for my general levels of anxiety, I feel largely at ease and secretly even a little bored.
I’d have left the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Centre disappointed were it not for three revelations that come to light in the tearoom after the vigil. The point of a paranormal vigil is to record subjective experiences independently. Afterwards, the records are collated. Any similarities are treated as evidence of potential paranormal activity. The independent scoring of individual locations works in the same way: scores are collated to produce a tangible data set.
Firstly, in a general discussion, it was agreed that a cold sensation around the ankles is a frequently reported experience for novices of the paranormal, not necessarily a draught from a door as I suspected. My previous sheepishness was replaced with a fleeting feeling of accomplishment, although that paled in comparison with claims elsewhere of ‘psychic smells’ and sightings of rocking horses.
Secondly, a similarity was noted in the records relating to location ‘G’. Two investigators had, independently, noted witnessing an apparition in the main stairwell. While one was unable to specify, the other was convinced that the apparition was that of a man. This, with no collaboration.
Thirdly, it was revealed that statistically (going by the scores taken from previous vigils and ours) the most paranormally active location in the building is ‘B’, my first posting. I think back to my shift there, where I struggled to detect anything. But the other investigators largely agreed on the matter, with one even admitting having given in to an irresistible urge to leave her posting seat in the basement and look behind the doors of the three storerooms. At the first she felt uncomfortable, the second more so. She couldn’t bring herself to open the third.
THE STAND-UP COMEDY GIG
Stand-up comedy was always going to be the lowest point of my week. Public speaking doesn’t generally daunt me, but this was public speaking with the added responsibility of making people laugh and the added risk of being ripped to shreds by hecklers. Lining it up, I felt like a lamb making its own arrangements to slaughter.
I arrive at the Monkey Barrel Comedy Club a full hour before the curtain is due to be raised. I want to familiarise myself with the surroundings and exit routes, and to procure some Dutch courage. I also want to secure the first slot of the show, reasoning that if I do so, the audience will be unable to compare me with anyone else – at least during my performance. The manager of the club quickly puts paid to my plan, guaranteeing that I won’t enjoy going first and stating that he doesn’t want audience members walking out at the get go because of a ‘shit opener’. I am allocated fourth.
Meanwhile, a man has entered the room and taken a seat at the back. I approach him and ask if this is his first time doing stand-up. It’s not; he’s been doing it for five years, and only now is he beginning to feel confident on stage. The only solace I garner from him is learning that the hour before his debut stand-up gig five years ago he was being violently sick in the toilets.
I take stock one final time: a massively inflated audience, a good proportion of which came in with the intention of seeing professional comedy; nine fellow comedians, most of whom have done this before; and my Dutch courage nowhere to be seen
By now, more people have begun to arrive, including audience members. I am told to expect somewhere in the region of a dozen, which strikes me as a reasonably intimate gathering.
By eight o’clock, I count some 50 heads in the audience. Inclement weather has seen an influx of people sign up to attend a professional comedy gig taking place upstairs in the main room. It sells out fast, and those turned away are channelled downstairs to our open-mic night. Extra chairs are brought in.
I take stock one final time once the doors are closed: a massively inflated audience of at least 60, a good proportion of which have come in with the intention of seeing professional comedy; nine fellow comedians, most of whom have done this before; and my Dutch courage nowhere to be seen.
As with the bungee jump, I don’t really remember actually doing my stand-up gig. I was advised that five minutes on stage would either go very quickly or very slowly, and fortunately I feel it’s gone the former way. Better still, I received a few laughs, which is considerably more than I’d anticipated. I’m the first to admit that I’m not likely to be winning any awards, but things could have gone far worse. I begin to suspect that I’ve gotten lucky with the audience, but the next act – a drama student – doesn’t do it for them. He’s gone a bit too far with the Dutch courage, which is to say he’s decidedly pissed. Toes curl. Before he can get to the end of his script he’s sarcastically applauded off.
THE NUDE SWIM
We’ve all experienced a nude dream: you’re somewhere public when all of a sudden you realise you’re naked and have nowhere to hide. This was the inspiration for my penultimate challenge. The question was, where could I legally bare all?
The Forth Naturists Swim Club enables members to enjoy swimming in the nude while remaining within the law. Twice a month the club meets at its year-round swim venue, the Aubigny Leisure Centre in Haddington, Scotland. They are given exclusive use of the pool, the steam room and sauna suite, the sports hall, even the canteen.
I enter the changing room. As I close the door it occurs to me that in a matter of seconds I’m going to be bollock-naked on the other side again. I decide to ease myself into the spirit of things by keeping it ajar. I then make my way to the poolside for a shower before getting into the water. Some of my fellow swimmers – male and female – are already in, doing lengths or loitering at the shallow end, chatting amongst themselves. One even has a snorkel, although I’m told she is ‘learning’ for an imminent holiday abroad.
The most remarkable thing about swimming naked is the almost-instantaneous loss of one’s inhibitions. I had been told to expect this, but I hadn’t anticipated it would happen as readily as it did. After a few lengths I find myself chatting with the group at the shallow end. Later I coordinate the photo shoot, more conscious of our photographer’s awkwardness than my own nudity. In fact, by the time I’m making use of the steam room and sauna suite (something I had vowed not to do), I’m hardly conscious of being naked at all. Had naked badminton been going ahead as it normally does, I genuinely believe I might have taken part. In for a penny, in for a pound, so they say.
Given my prior reservations and thinking that I was about to enter the scene of a nightmare, I felt surprisingly comfortable for the duration of the swim. The next morning, I awake with the feeling that it was all in fact a dream. But the photography says otherwise. The fact is – as a group of us discuss in the sauna – there’s a genuine sense of equality to be had when naked in this sort of setting. The mere lack of clothing has resulted in the absence of judgement amongst us all, although I dare say I don’t speak for the two lifeguards legally obliged to be in attendance, or our photographer. What’s more, there’s actually little talk of nudity. Instead, people are discussing their weekends, their work, their families – the sort of things they’d be discussing in the pub. There’s no voyeurism or questionable behaviour (the club understandably has strict rules on this front) – just a group of like-minded people partaking in an activity they genuinely enjoy and which in many cultures around the world is considered entirely normal.
THE FINAL CHALLENGE
I had some time to prepare myself for the final challenge, which was just as well given my general feelings of relief and exhaustion, and my desire to get back to the comfort of my usual routine. It was perhaps fitting, then, that this challenge required experiencing a routine entirely characterised by insecurity and exhaustion, and utterly devoid of comfort. I was to spend half a night on the streets of Edinburgh, sampling what life is like for the city’s homeless.
A little over a decade ago, after a series of disastrous personal events, Sonny Murray found himself without a home. Moving between the streets and homeless shelters, he eventually wound up in prison. Here, he became addicted to heroin. Life quickly became a vicious cycle of rough sleeping, shoplifting and drug abuse.
Today, Sonny works for the Edinburgh-based social enterprise Social Bite. Social Bite employs homeless people, with its profits going to homeless charities throughout Scotland. In addition to this, Sonny works as a tour guide in Edinburgh and has recently set up his own business as a public speaker. He’s got a flat, a child, a partner, a dog – he’s back on his feet.
For one night, he’s agreed to show me what life used to be like.
Sonny and I meet at Social Bite, just as he’s finishing a shift. The only clues to his troubled past are slightly sunken cheeks and a persistent cough. This, I learn, is not a result of heavy smoking but of having unknowingly contracted tuberculosis on multiple occasions while sleeping rough.
Our first ‘sight’ is a graveyard beyond the westernmost end of Princes Street Gardens. Sonny takes out a torch and lights up the ground of a long recess along one wall. It’s strewn with needles, spoons, pieces of aluminium foil, empty sachets, paper bags, glass bottles, cans, cigarette packets – all manner of drug and alcohol paraphernalia. Despite it being in earshot of one of Edinburgh’s busiest thoroughfares, the sheltered position of this recess has made it a popular haunt for drug and alcohol abusers. For the same reason, it’s also frequented as a place to sleep by the homeless – Sonny once included. His phobia of rats eventually drove him elsewhere.
Because of funding cuts, the shelter shuts at 10. In a couple of hours the people will be turned out onto the streets. Many of them will have been made homeless recently – potentially even earlier that day
Later, we make our way to a crisis centre. At least a dozen individuals are seated or standing inside, some with their heads in their hands, others charging phones to make desperate phone calls. When he was homeless, Sonny occasionally came here at nights. That was when the centre operated 24/7. Now, because of funding cuts, it shuts at 10. In a couple of hours the people will be turned out onto the streets. Many of them will have been made homeless recently – potentially even earlier today. It’s a moving sight.
On nights when homeless people haven’t managed to secure shelter, Sonny explains they often just wander the streets, waiting for the morning. We spend an hour or so doing this, encountering various members of the homeless community en route – first, a couple of men who have been turfed out of a shelter for being drunk, then a homeless woman to whom Sonny gives his scarf. It’s a degree above freezing, and she’s still £7 away from paying her way into the cheapest shelter. Upon finding out what I’m doing, she pointedly suggests that if I really want to experience what homelessness is like I should book into the shelter.
Conscious of the ethics of occupying a space in a homeless shelter but also taking the woman’s suggestion as a clear warning, I decide to stick to the plan and have Sonny show me the ropes of sitting on a street corner. Sonny looks comfortable enough, but at the same time I can’t help but notice a sense of restlessness about him. After all, there can’t be many formerly homeless people who would willingly return to the streets, even in this manner.
After an hour we’ve received little in the way of interaction. This is just as well, because while I’ve been worrying about having to reject any donations and explain myself, Sonny has been worrying about the two of us being spat on or, worse, attacked – both of which I learn are frequent acts against the homeless.
By 11 o’clock Sonny needs to call it a night; he’s working the next day. Before I do the same, I want to experience what being on the streets alone feels like. Sonny advises me that if I’m accosted by anyone I should ignore them and move on. He sets me up on a normally occupied location before departing.
Another hour passes without incident. In fact, what strikes me the most about the experience was the total lack of acknowledgement from the public. I had anticipated some sort of engagement. What I am getting is an insight into perhaps the most crippling element of homelessness besides the physical hardship: loneliness. To be homeless in today’s society is, in many ways, to be invisible. I lose count of the averted gazes, the conscious moves across the pavement.
At midnight I get a call. It’s Sonny asking how I’m getting on. I realise then that I’m not going to get any closer to experiencing homelessness. I think back to the desperate phone calls being made at the crisis centre, to the homeless woman who’s hopefully scraped enough together to access a shelter, to the graveyard recess likely now occupied by several who haven’t been so fortunate, if you can call that fortunate. And you can guarantee that not one of them will be receiving a phone call regarding their wellbeing.
I pack up my sleeping bag and start the walk home. I think of the security, comfort and routine awaiting me back home, only now with a sense of shame.
My self-styled ‘worst week’ had ended on a sombre note. While my experience on the streets didn’t make me as anxious as, say, my stand-up comedy gig, its effect in putting the rest of the week’s experiences into perspective was profound.
The fact is, I took something positive away from every one of the week’s activities: an insatiable appetite for higher and higher bungee jumps; a desire to be deprived of my senses further still; a craving for the adrenaline of doing stand-up comedy and the euphoria that ensues; even a newfound appreciation of naturism. As for experiencing homelessness, I came to the very obvious realisation that nobody actively wants to live like that, that it isn’t something people desire or crave. I suspect even the most anxious of us has a capacity to seek thrills, but there’s no thrill to be had from living on the streets.
We all experience anxiety at one point or another. Had he lived in the 21st century, Benjamin Franklin might well have listed it alongside death and taxes as one of life’s great certainties.
Of course, anxiety at its very worst is considered a serious mental health issue, and there can be no belittling the fact. But for anxiety of the ‘everyday’ variety – worrying about trivial work matters, perfecting our lives on social media or fretting about politics, for example – it is well to put things into perspective.
“We poison our lives with fear of burglary and shipwreck and, ask anyone, the house is never burgled and the ship never goes down”
– Jean Anouilh, The Rehearsal.
We couldn’t have created this feature without the kind assistance of the following people: