“Never trust an expert”

On a recent trip to Scotland I read an old adage that I do not recall hearing before: “A grain of truth does not make a loaf of success”. This reminded me of why it is always a daunting task to either give advice or indeed take it

As I am now of a certain age and up until today managed to survive for a reasonable period of time running a business and the fact that we promote our Startisans scheme to assist start up food businesses it is not surprising that I am occasionally asked for advice. However, in my own experience, it is very difficult to measure the effectiveness of the advice either that I personally have been given over the years or indeed imparted myself. For example I can clearly remember at the start of my career being advised: “To close down the deli counters as they were a thing of the past, not to risk opening a new independent food shop as the multiples would soon dominate the entire market place, to buy from bigger wholesalers to get the best price, to increase the range of own label products, to decrease the range of own-label products, to not bother with Christmas hampers or staying open late or having a delivery service or stocking known value items (as they would lower the tone)”. In each of these pieces of advice there is undoubtedly a grain of truth but taken in their totality thank goodness we did not follow them. In fact it is difficult to think of an individual piece of advice that hit the nail on the head apart from the obvious types like “you are drunk – go home” as I have heard from the experiences of other people and definitely not my own.

Sadly, I can also recall some of the advice that I have given that has proved to be unreliable: “Give it time and it will probably turn out alright. (It didn’t). Do not become overly obsessed with security. Don’t worry about refurbishing your shop if it is going well. Bottled water will never sell in the UK. Who needs PR? Focus mainly on the gross margins”. Basically it has always been the ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ sort of advice. (Although I still wonder about the PR sometimes). Apart from that I never saw the following trends coming: bottled water, gourmet sandwiches, smart phones, social media, Brexit, Trump or the latest series of Sherlock.

In my defence, I am not alone, though. Over a decade ago, In a well- known research paper, Dr John Ioannidis of Stanford University concluded that two out of three findings in medical journals are in fact wrong. There are many reasons why advice needs to carry with it a health warning. The advice should be couched in the appropriate context of “this is what I would do” or “This worked for me in the past”.

There are also questions that are by definition almost impossible to answer. How can I make money, obtain a Royal Warrant, choose a product around which to build a business for example? The simple fact of the matter is that apart from the basics of hard work, perseverance, luck and having a good support team there is not a lot of advice that can be specifically useful.

However, to hear or read about the experiences of others, to be prepared to ignore them completely and to form your own conclusions as you make your way in life is probably how it works for everyone. In so many ways the question to be asked is not “how do I do it” but “why do I do it”.

 
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