The daily rituals of business builders

First published in the Financial Times on 14th January 2014.

In my experience, very few successful founders are late risers

We cannot replicate the minds of geniuses: but we can know and perhaps copy their working habits. This is the premise of a fascinating little book called Daily Rituals, by Mason Currey. He examines the schedules of artists, philosophers, writers and composers. But what about entrepreneurs, inventors and tycoons? What are their daily rituals?

For sure, it involves graft. As Kemmons Wilson, founder of Holiday Inn said: “Work only half a day. It makes no difference which half – the first 12 hours or the last 12 hours.” In my experience, very few successful founders are late risers. William Chase, the ex-farmer who created Tyrells Crisps, and now runs Chase Distillery, said: “I used to worry a lot about money, and that got me up early in the morning. If it’s a business where you’re producing and making things there is no early – the sooner you start, the more you can do in a day.”

Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, is frequently described as a workaholic who begins emailing staff at 4.30am; he prides himself on being the first in and last out of the office.

Many entrepreneurs I’ve observed have high energy and cram a lot into their day. While Jack Dorsey was working at both Twitter and as CEO of Square, he would do eight hours at the former and then the same at the latter. Interestingly, he themed his days: Monday running the company, Tuesday products, Wednesday marketing, Thursday developers and partnerships, and Friday culture and recruiting. Such a pace is easier when you are young. But Li Ka-shing, Asia’s richest man – aged 85 – still wakes at 5am to catch the news, while setting his watch 20 minutes fast to be on time for appointments.

I like entrepreneurs who go out and touch operations, meet staff in the field and talk to customers. Last year I spent a day on the road with Vernon Hill, the chairman of Metro Bank, where I serve as a board member. He spends much of his time viewing possible sites, checking up on the competition and monitoring service levels first hand in his business. There is no substitute for doing it yourself and being seen on the frontline in person.
My friend Tim Martin, the relentless boss of pub chain JD Wetherspoon, roves around the country dropping in on his taverns at least one day a week. I am sure such behaviour is a vital ingredient in the company’s winning formula.

Certain creative bosses need sessions to reflect and cogitate, undistracted from the endless calls on their time. Thomas Edison apparently used to sit in a “thinking chair” holding a ball bearing in each hand. He would close his eyes and relax. As he unwound, the balls would crash to the floor, which awoke the great man. He would then transcribe his first thoughts, unimpeded by day-to-day worries.

Similarly, Sir Clive Sinclair, the under-appreciated British technology pioneer, does not use email because he finds it interrupts him. I know the feeling – in this digital age, we are all too easily diverted, even from core tasks that require real focus.

Todd Stitzer, the ex-chief executive of Cadbury, told me he spent the first two hours of his morning strictly undisturbed by meetings, phone calls or emails. He used that time to consider the big issues. Similarly, Bill Gross, the inspirational leader at Pimco, believes the most important part of his day is a yoga workout between 8.30am and 10am. He says: “Some of my best ideas literally come from standing on my head doing yoga.

W H Auden, the poet, said: “Routine, in an intelligent man, is the sign of ambition.” I am not sure I agree. Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, the largest retailer in the world, refused to allow his day to be organised. In his book, Made in America, he wrote: “I think my way of operating has more or less driven Loretta Boss and Becky Elliott, my two secretaries, around the bend. My style is pretty haphazard.”

I’m a little the same: it allows room for serendipitous meetings and calls, and to concentrate on what is important rather than what feels urgent but does not matter. Time is all about priorities, after all.