Subscriptions, Storytelling & Soft Skills | Podcast | Episode 007
Updated: Jan 11
In this episode, we speak with Howard Tunnicliffe who is Head of Finance for the Subscriptions division of the Economist, as well as being a coach and teacher under his own brand Financesoftskills.com
Howard started his career as a finance and audit contractor for Dell, before moving on to become an analyst at Ernst & Young and then a Management Accountant at DTZ, formerly Cushman and Wakefield. More recently, Howard worked as the Finance Business Partner for Starbucks, before moving to the Economist in 2014 where he's been ever since.
Howard is now a proud father, lover of good food, and passionate about helping finance professionals improve their soft skills and EQ.
Audio Podcast Links
How to find Howard
Howard on LinkedIn
Examples of Howard's posts
[The controversial post] There are so many productivity apps, it makes it hard to know which one to choose. My strong recommendation: none of them... Full post here
[The prioritisation post] How good a prioritiser are you? This is one area where I see finance functions lagging other departments. With so many demands in the modern world, how do we decide what gets done next?... Full post here
[The 'all over your numbers' post] Many people will tell you a key part of being a successful FBP is being ‘all over your numbers’. Big mistake. Huge!... Full post here
How to become a confident networker
Leadership and Influencing
Attention and Prioritisation
Positivity and Resilience
Embracing Change and problem Solving
Building Relationships and Rapport
Deep Work - Cal Newport
Digital Minimalism - Cal Newport
When - Daniel Pink
To sell is human - Daniel Pink
The Pomodoro technique - The Pomodoro technique is a time-blocking approach that has been demonstrated to work. The Pomodoro technique uses short, regular pauses to help you focus on completing a job with little interruptions. More info here.
The Eisenhower Matrix - Also referred to as Urgent-Important Matrix, helps you decide on and prioritize tasks by urgency and importance. More info here.
Van Westerndorp Chart - Van Westendorp is a survey-based research technique used to identify a range of acceptable prices. The Van Westendorp pricing model asks respondents to evaluate four specific price points. When the results are tallied, price curves can be created, and a range of acceptable product prices can be determined. More info here.
Anaplan - Advanced planning tools
ChargeBee - Subscription billing software
Slack - Team collaboration platform
Todoist - Task management app
Microsoft OneNote - Note management app
Wes Kao - Co-Founder of Maven
00:01:23 Driving up subscription revenue 20%
00:12:56 Recommendations for those starting in the subscriptions space
00:19:59 Injecting some entertainment into your presentations
00:40:07 A new approach to prioritisation
00:46:48 Courses to improve your soft skills
00:51:35 Why you should have a personal brand
[00:00:00] Adam: Hello and welcome to Tech for Finance, where we help finance professionals leverage technology to support their ambitions as businesses and as individuals.
I'm your host, Adam Shilton, and in this episode we're going to be chatting with Howard Tunnicliffe, who is head of finance for the subscriptions division of the Economist, as well as being a coach and teacher under his own brand, Financesoftskills.com. Howard started his career as a finance and audit contractor for Dell before moving on to become an analyst at Ernst and Young, and then a management accountant at DTZ formerly Cushman and Wakefield.
More recently, Howard worked as the finance business partner for Starbucks before moving to The Economist in 2014 where he's been ever since. Howard is now a proud father lover of good food. I'm passionate about helping finance professionals improve their soft skills. Thanks for joining me today, Howard.
[00:00:54] Howard: Yeah, no problem. Adam great to be here.
Driving up subscription revenue 20%
[00:00:57] Adam: So, You've had quite a lot of success at The Economist over the past, almost nine years now. So the, the first question is is the area that piqued my interest is on that scenario modeling project. So I see you drove up the subscription revenue about 20% by looking at price elasticities.
And you don't have to go into all of the, the technical detail, but could you tell us a little bit more, you know, what did the process look like? What sort of tools did you use as part of the process?
[00:01:23] Howard: Yeah. So that was really one of the, the highlights of my career. And, and that quite often comes up.
People like to talk to me about that. And for me it really highlights nicely how you don't need to be that senior in fp and a to make a massive difference. So, you know, for any company, particularly a subscriptions company, getting the pricing right. One of the most impactful things that you can do. Really, really interesting project to be involved with and I was very lucky my manager had run the last price strategy and he handed over to me.
So that was great, a great opportunity. So we worked with some pricing consultants Simon Kucher partners, and we. Well, they had a tool, a willingness to pay tool, and they put some prices in front of some existing subscribers and some prospects. So we just wanna make sure that, you know, we're still providing value to not only our current subscribers, but also new people.
And then they, they created there's a really cool chart, called a Van Westerndorp chart, and that really shows you that people's willingness to pay kind of drops off. It's not really linear. It's the classic case where you might pay 99 pounds for a subscription. But if it goes up to 101, it just feels like okay, you've broken through that kind of three figure barrier.
And, and that's not you know, a level that you're happy to, to pay in that example. So you'll see these charts and they show you kind of those peaks and troughs where people really drop off quite heavily at, at those price points. And then they gave us that data. We segmented. And then the, the really key thing about this project, which helped it to succeed was that they gave us the inputs.
So the price elasticities of various different scenarios of price increases and, and drop off in subscribers. So the increased churn, they gave us those inputs in a way that we could sort of the outputs from that pricing analysis. And they gave us inputs that we could then use in Anaplan.
So we are doing all the scenario modeling in Anaplan to give us the different revenues and volumes. And we were completely joined up. So we knew exactly what we were getting. We could prepare Anaplan to receive those inputs. And then that just meant that there was no interpretation required. It was a straight, give us the outputs from what your expertise, we'll put them into the model.
It needs a little bit of sense check for us. But then really it, it's ready to go without too much interpretation required. So yeah, that was that was the, the real key to the success of that project in, in terms of the modeling side.
[00:04:22] Adam: And a quick question that wasn't in my pre-prepared list of questions.
Sorry. I understand at the, the Economist, the subscriptions are for both. There's an online subscription, isn't there? And then there's also a physical publication, if I've got that correct?
[00:04:38] Howard: Yeah, that's right. So now the options that we have are, it's a digital only subscription or it's a bundle subscription where you get the, the weekly newspaper delivered to you and you also get all of the same digital access as well.
[00:04:53] Adam: Ok. And the models, was there, was there anything interesting that came up from modeling the online versus the the bundle? Was there much difference in those scenarios or was it pretty consistent across the board?
[00:05:09] Howard: So the main factor for us around retention is really the, the length or tenure of subscribers.
So we have a real solid base of very loyal subscribers and then naturally people in their first year they might be trying us out for the first time, kind of more likely to to turn off in that first year. But in terms of the digital and bundle yeah, again, it's, it's an interesting split because you.
You naturally have kind of more engagement with the, the product when you're receiving that through the, the door every week. So yeah, I think there's, people are enjoying products digitally more and more. But actually we still have a lot of people kind of choosing the bundle and, and you know, they do react differently.
It, it's a different subscriber type really. Again, I'd say more of what we're doing now is digital. So those people that have maybe been with us for 1, 2, 3 years, much more likely to choose digital now. But we still have the bundle subscribers. Personally, I love the paper copy. I'm always picking one up when I'm, I'm, I'm in the office.
So yeah, we need to make sure that we're have, have the right value proposition for both of those subscriber types.
[00:06:34] Adam: Yeah. I'm pro digital not solely down to the fact that I wanna save all the trees. I'm sure obviously the, you know, it, it is all sustainable and, and all of that sort of thing. But I think, think you're right regarding engagement because if something's physically sat on your desk, you, you've gotta move it.
Yeah. You know, to, to get it out of, of your tray as it, as it were. But digital assets are a lot more easy to lose, aren't they? So, yeah, I, I think I'd, I'd agree with that.
[00:07:08] Howard: Yeah. Yeah. And I think there's also a point around sort of shareability, for me, it's quite nice. So my wife will be keen on sharing the, the paper copy.
It can be just a nice prompt that, okay, there's a new issue out. Whereas sometimes in the digital space, you know, you need to work a little bit. To let people know that the, the content is updated, those push notifications and yeah, there's a different way of engaging with both of those different customer types.
The challenges of building a subscription business
[00:07:39] Adam: Fabulous. Thanks for that, Howard. So next question is then around some of the, some of the challenges that you see because many, many businesses, are built off the back of a subscription model. Now, you know, whether it's IT and, and cloud software as a service whether it's, you know, consulting as a service, you know, as a service for everything.
So what are some of the challenges that you've seen with building a subscription business?
[00:08:10] Howard: Yeah. Well, I, I think particularly, At the moment that cost of living is really such an issue, you know, across the globe. And I think we've seen over certainly the last five years, as you said, we've seen that kind of boom in subscriptions businesses.
So you can get your razor, you can get your food, you know, you can get one of those services that you talked about. So pretty much everything is, is available as a subscription. And it's becoming, I think, more and more crowded now. So that, that's definitely a challenge. And I see lots of reports about, you know, the average person has x number of subscriptions, so, you know, might be, might be double figures now.
And for me as a finance person, I've always got an eye on my personal finances and I'm thinking every month do you see the, see the cash go out and you think, well, is, is that still something that I'm getting value from? So I think. That's, that's important, realizing that we need to sort of demonstrate the value.
And in a lot of cases nowadays, there are plenty of no and low cost substitutes as well. So, you know, not only. In the media space, you know, the Economist, we need to be having like real best of breed products. So you're up there against digitally native companies that are amazing and, and we've done a lot on, on our product proposition over the last few years to make sure that we are really operating it in, in that really kind of peak product space.
That's for sure. But yeah, realizing that people are gonna have other options, you know, news, you can get news free. So again, it's about that value proposition, you know, being that trusted filter that, that kind of advisor that people can come to and you don't need to go to 10 different places. As, as well, I think that that filtering is really key because, you know, there's so much noise out there for sure.
So, see, I, I think they're really the challenges and then, It's about that engagement as well. So, you know, we talked about noise already, that there's lots of companies out there competing for your attention. So how do you make sure that all those customers they feel the value, they're engaging with you on a regular basis, and, and then once you have that regular engagement, then you know you've got a really healthy subscriptions business.
[00:10:48] Adam: Yeah. Thanks for that. And, and I think it, Is a fair point, isn't it? You know, there, there always seems to be either a freemium or a, a more cost effective option. So the, the, the way that I've seen, so take, take my world, you know, SaaS software there has been some massive momentum with some of these unicorn companies that come out and nowhere in a massive, massive subscription base.
Right? And it tends to be down to them being able to offer something that you just cannot find anywhere else, right? It serves a need. There's no replacement because if you wanna do this, then the only, the only answer is right. Y? Right? So I think not every company falls into that category. Not everybody has a unicorn product, do they?
But the other piece that I've seen work well, and this is some of the subscriptions I have to, to training platforms and, and so on and so forth, I think, a really good way. I mean, you, you've got this at The Economist, is not just to have the, the content and the service, but the community that sits behind it. And I think that's a big gap.
That, and it's difficult building a community mind. It is really difficult. But. If you have combination of a good service as well as a community of like, minded individuals that you only have access to if you pay for that service, then you, you make your, your customer stickier, don't you? And I think it was, it was Christian at the Business Partnering Institute.
They've got a platform now that allows them to share their training materials. But it's also got community element as well. So, so not only do they get the training, but they get to share stories about how they've put that into practice. Yeah, and it's the same with some of the tools that I use. You know, I get the training, but then there's also a community where we're sharing stories.
We're always looking for continuous improvement. So I think if you can nail the, the value proposition and you can nail the community, I think you're onto a winner.
[00:12:42] Howard: So, yeah, And certainly I see it on social media channels as well. That's a great way for. People to be able to kind of interact with a brand, you know, interact with each other and see what other Economist readers are thinking.
Recommendations do you have for those starting in the subscription space
[00:12:56] Adam: Very good. So to a young team then starting, and, and whether it's a startup or just a young company that, that' s starting out in the subscription space, what advice would you give them starting off? Are there any recommendations? Are there any specific tools that you'd need as a baseline to, to build before anything else?
[00:13:15] Howard: Yeah, so I think that we talked a little bit about value proposition earlier on, and I think that's really key. So if I was setting up a subscriptions business, and actually one of my friends is, is just setting up a, a new Publication and for me it's really about the value proposition. So do you have a clear value proposition, as you mentioned?
Is it differentiated? And, and do people understand it? So I think that that's one thing and, and really that minimum viable product approach is, is really important as well. I think. So you need to figure out if what you are selling is what people want. And, and maybe you've got a great proposition, but people don't understand it or you can't get the message out there well enough.
So, you really need to think about the product is, is one thing, but actually the marketing, sales, and marketing, is really where you'll kind of fail or succeed in, in those initial times. So often we think, Well, if we make the right product, then people will come, but in this day and age they won't. It's such a noisy marketplace.
So have your value proposition, right? If you, if you really believe in it, then, then that's great. You need to convince other people as well. So that's one. I think. Then the sales and marketing. So where are you gonna find your subscribers from? How much is it gonna cost you? I think that's really important.
And then probably the third point would be listening to your customers. So particularly early on, I heard it was a really good interview with Wes Kao who is the head of Maven. And they offer online courses and she said even only a few years ago, they would just be hitting the phones and, and asking people personally to sign up for courses.
So maybe having a discovery call. And yeah, the course is maybe a few hundred pounds, but they're just trying to get some momentum going. Yeah. So initially you don't actually have to be scalable. That was her point. It's actually quite a nice situation to be in where you can be reaching out to people prospective subscribers understanding kind of their issues, their problems, how you can solve those, and then, yeah, talking to them on a, on a kind of customer by customer basis.
So yeah, that's probably the three things I'd focus on. In terms of tools we certainly have tools at The Economist that you can listen to the customer service calls. So that, that's a really, really interesting one I think, and I know our senior management listen to those on a regular basis because sometimes it, you know, it can be hard to really directly interface with your customers.
So having you know, a bigger company, it's harder to do that. So having the ability to listen to those customer service calls, I think is, is a great way to connect ourselves with, with our customer base.
[00:16:20] Adam: And I think that's fair. And, and I think sometimes we're, we're guilty and it's a, obviously we're, we're into more sales and marketing territory now.
But we sometimes think that we've got to guess too much and we've gotta hypothesize too much. You know, we've got value proposition that we think based on this audience will work well. But as you say, you know, starting off, not, not everything has to scale. You know, there is a big learning exercise to be done in just speaking to either your existing or your prospective customers.
And that's, that's not just when you're building a business. AS I say for, for you at the Economist, the, the senior guys that are interested to hear that feedback, that's more than just, are customers happy? Are they seeing value? It's, you know, an opportunity to diversify. What, what are we not doing at the moment that we could be doing?
You know, is there a different market that we could be addressing? You know, is there another gap to fill? So I think, I think they're all valid points. Yeah, so, so coming back to, I guess, more of the financy stuff yeh, and we don't, we don't need to get into the weeds of how you build a, a revenue recognition schedule on a, on a spreadsheet or, or anything like that, but, But from your perspective, is it, is it possible?
So, so, you know, maybe a small finance team growing business in the subscription base, You know, they've either got some, I don't know, Xero Sage 50 or something like that, but they're now at the point where they've maybe got, you know, contracts into the hundreds with, you know, 12 months, you know, 24 months terms, whatever their, their, their schedule is potentially made up.
One or more products. Yeah, so maybe not just a subscription. It could be product A, B, and C. With those different price points, would, would you recommend that somebody tries to find a specific subscription billing platform like a, like a ChargeBee or something like that from a ground up? Or do you think there is a case to say, Right, Well, if things aren't too complicated, you could build that database in a spreadsheet or equivalent to begin with.
[00:18:16] Howard: Yeah. I'd say early on. Yeah, keep it as simple as possible, I'd say. And, and actually, yeah, you can manage kind of the, the modeling in a fairly simple spreadsheet, but, but I'd say pretty early on you want to be migrating over to something more robust like specialist platform. Because I think with the subscriber based business, all of those interactions you have with your subscribers are so key.
And, and things like having smooth billing. Is so important. You know, if people are on auto renew you can really take take that kind of pain of having to pay away from them and making that like a really smooth process. And equally, if they want to cancel, you know, understanding why they want to cancel, but also making it a smooth process And Yeah.
Yeah, having that very joined up it's really important because a lot of those subscriptions are gonna be monthly. So you just need to make sure that it's as smooth as possible. Generally what I've found in, in my side business is that. Most of these tools are kind of very scalable in terms of the accessibility of getting into them when you've got kind of a, a small business and a low subscriber base, and most of these tools are, are very, very affordable initially, and then they'll scale up as you scale up.
So I, I'd say, As soon as you've proved it out and you feel like you've got kind of a cash generative business, then yeah, move it over. Start utilizing those tools to make your life easier and then you can concentrate more on growing the business.
[00:19:59] Adam: Yeah, and you raise the interesting point actually, and sometimes people get caught up in the, how is it gonna be easier for us to manage our contracts and us to manage our billing, but you immediately switched there to how is it gonna be easiest for our customer?
And that's, that's a, that's a piece that is sometimes missed out, not deliberately, but because you get so caught up in your process in trying to find the easiest way to do things that doesn't necessarily always make its way to that, that customer interaction. Yeah. And, and it's simple stuff like as, as you say, you know, can I get into a portal that shows me where my next billing date is?
You know, can I have an invoice for my last. For my last month's subscription. All, all of these little things make up towards that more immersive customer experience, I guess, you know, and I mean, what Stripe came out of nowhere, You know, that's, that's one of the, the go to payment platforms, right? Isn't it?
They've got a really good way of doing that now. And, you know, even the, the SAGE online tools now have got portals to allow you to access invoicing. So I think there's a very valid point about what that customer experience looks like, not just how easily are we gonna manage the business so that we can focus on our strategic goals.
Injecting some entertainment into your presentations
So, so thanks for adding that in. It's. Something that isn't always front and center, I guess.
Excellent. So, so moving into more soft skills then and, and I was, I was doing it doing a bit of reading and your, your experience at Starbucks and, and all of that, you know big names, but, you know probably a lot of difficult stories to tell, I guess, or, or stories where you, you probably need to get a point across effectively.
So it seems as though you've, you've got a pretty good mastery of storytelling, so, whether it be your cost reduction initiatives at Starbucks or, or the regular trading updates at The Economist, you know, what's your process for telling that story? Do you have a process for building presentations? How are you ensuring that you are getting your point across?
Especially to an audience, which I'm, I'm sure now have pretty short intention spans and probably not, not enough time to, to spend the meetings.
[00:22:00] Howard: Yeah, it, it is definitely a challenge and we seem to have more and more meetings and more and more presentations Yeah. In, in the modern world. But I think a, a few things to recognize, So firstly, whether it's sort of a presentation or, or even just a simple email is, well, who's the audience for this?
And how much, how much detail do they need, really? Cause if you are, if you're at a town hall and you're giving a bit of an update on fp and a at the Economist, you really need to zoom out and recognize that most of these people aren't gonna know much about finance. They're probably not gonna care too much about finance and a lot of situations.
So there you're gonna really need to focus more on the entertainment. You know, and, and can you kind of confound some people's expectations and really treat it as a way to entertain people with, with a little bit of information in there, but not necessarily going too heavy. Equally for maybe a presentation to the board of senior leadership, again, it pays to simplify things down.
So I think early on in my career, Kind of wanted to show my expertise by maybe showing a bit of the complexity. You know, if I'd gone to a, if I'd have had to do a lot of data cleansing and I had to go out to 10 different people and we had to all agree on certain numbers, I'd, I'd want to show a little bit of that.
Kind of to prove out, you know, this, this was pretty difficult. But I realized that was kind of quite a selfish thing to do. And, and as we were talking and, and the last point about customer focus, well, here, the customer focus is, well, how can I simplify things down? And, and really just drawing out.
Like the important points and particularly decision points. I think that's key because you need to realize the senior people, they're in back to back meetings. They're talking about 10, 12 different topics every day. And, and they want the whole story for sure. And they can dip into it more. Ask questions if they need to, but at the end of the day you need to say, Well, this is the conclusions, this is the recommendations, this is the actions.
So just making it kind of as palatable for them as possible. Again, trying to minimize the noise in the background and just, this is what we need from you and this is what we are recommending to you today. And, and a couple more things. So I've been working a bit on storytelling, so I really like this question, Adam.
I think it's one of those areas where we can get quite creative as finance people. And, and I do think that entertainment angle is something that we should really think about, even if it is to more senior people. You know, increasingly people want a bit of entertainment, so it doesn't need to be all entertainment.
But if, if we can make it little bit engaging at the start, then that that's only gonna help people to be paying attention. And a couple of things that, I've been working on a bit more lately. We see a lot in, in kind of YouTube generation. A lot of that is you, you tell kind of answer first. So you know, you might actually skip to the conclusion of your YouTube video first, kind of, you you show the ending and then you then let people kind of follow the steps to how you got there.
And, and that's quite counterintuitive. Like I, I would never do that, I think, or keep the ending to be a surprise, but actually that's, that's the way that it's proving really popular now. So we can use that in our presentations.
Kind of tell the ending first and then show how we got there. I think that's, that's a really interesting tip to get people involved. And the other thing that I really like as well is a little cliff hanger. So, We might be talking at the start, a little summary and, and I'll always like to say, Oh, we'll go on to talk about that next, or in the next slide we're gonna talk about this.
And, and I think that again is a really, like a little bit of an engaging way to to kind of keep people's interests. And actually what I've done once or twice is I've, I've set a cliff hanger out there and then not answered it. And then that, that's, I think it's intriguing for some people that loop isn't closed.
So what you're hoping for then is in the questions at the end, someone might say, Oh, well you said, you said you're gonna clear this up and you haven't cleared it up yet. And, and that's really rewarding when you get asked that question at the end, you're kind of like laying a little trap for someone and, and then hoping that someone picks up on it.
[00:26:37] Adam: It's, it's the retention piece, isn' t it. You know, it's, it is a good way of, of I guess, gauging whether people have. You know, paid, paid attention, I guess.
[00:26:47] Howard: Yeah, absolutely. And, and that cliffhanger it might be something that's either, it's not that important if it doesn't get answered, or if you don't get asked that question at the end, you can then kind of bring it up yourself.
But yeah, that's, yeah, it's a way to make those presentations like more intriguing for yourself as well. You're, you're trying to like, play a little game of engaging your audience as well as informing them.
[00:27:10] Adam: Yeah. I, I think it's a really good term, entertaining. It's not one you often hear when we talk about giving presentations and you know, we, we talk about creating impact, you know, and we, we talk about telling a compelling story.
But sometimes the entertainment factor does, does get missed out. And obviously, you know, Paul and I in the podcast, we, we mentioned you, and I think you had that discussion that that was, you know, do we have hybrid roles? Do we work around center of excellence? And if you are business partners and it is your role to effectively sell internally an idea, then it helps if you can be entertaining in the process.
Right. You know? A little bit more difficult for people that do take on hybrid roles that need to get stuck into the weeds of the numbers and then also have to, to present a business case. But I think, and I dunno whether you agree that, you know, with teams becoming more diverse and taking on more roles, there's kind of no option but for people to, to take on some of these hybrid roles.
[00:28:16] Howard: Yeah. I feel. In my career and at The Economist, we are going more towards specialization. Okay. And, and I think that's also something that I've seen throughout my career as well. When, when I think about in the past, yeah. Management accounts, roles, you might do a bit of financial accounting, bit management, accounting, and then a bit of the business partnering as well.
So I, yeah, I think it is going to more specialism, but, But I think where the hybrid comes in is we're getting much more cross-functional. So that's, that's, yeah, that's kind of been the change I think that you are. You're not really as much in finance anymore. You know, you're really operating across the business.
And, and that's, I think that's a really nice place to be. It's kind of a, yeah, an exciting place, you know, dealing with the product and tech teams, digital teams that, you know, weren't really around or certainly on that scale even a few years ago. Yeah, it's kind of invigorating cuz they often have completely different ways of working and, and they're much better at utilizing new tools than finance people that, that are kind of agile methodologies.
Yeah, great to learn from those teams.
[00:29:31] Adam: And just one last point on the, the entertainment piece. And it, and it makes so much sense when you start thinking about it, but it's not until you start using these terms and seeing things from a different perspective that, you know, your internal battles are just as difficult as your external battles.
You know, people still have short attention spans. You still need to retain interest and get that interest quickly. You know, so, So whether you are scrolling on Instagram and stopped by something that takes your attention, Because the marketing team's done well. It's what you're saying there with the entertainment factor is, you know, how can you get people more in the head space to absorb your information as opposed to just being in autopilot?
You know? And it just becoming more and more part of the day to day durge of information that people don't necessarily register. I I can't remember who the conversation was with, but we, we were talking about this subjective of retaining interest in, in presentations. It wasn't necessarily the retaining interest, it was the being memorable.
And he said the, the best thing he ever saw, and he didn't do it. But he had a colleague that started a presentation and he had a handful of confetti and he just threw it up in the air and he said, "Do you see? That's all the money you are losing if you do nothing" and he had the interest like that, you know, and, and it didn't so much matter. I mean, of course it mattered what the content was that followed that up, but it was guaranteed that they would not forget, you know, what happened in that, in that meeting room. So yeah, it reminded me of that. So thank thanks for that. Business partnering as entertainers, eh, Very good . So slight tangent then.
Why you should ditch your productivity apps
So I've been keeping up with your, your LinkedIn posts. And I suppose, you know, loosely linked to storytelling, you know business partnering, but it kind of, I suppose, relates to prioritization. How do you make sure that you do have a clear focus and, and the point that you raised on LinkedIn was it was a controversial point where you said you need to ditch your productivity apps and you need to go back to basics.
I think the, the words were pen, pen and paper would be ideal. A spreadsheet, if you must. Yeah. And, and in fact, I don't wanna start an argument. But this for me, I, you know, I grew up in the cloud and I've got 15 different productivity apps on my phone and my computer. So I'd love to hear your perspective on why you feel that approach is maybe a little bit more refreshing than having an app for that in all instances.
[00:32:24] Howard: Yeah. And I realize that's, you know, it's a controversial statement to come onto the Tech for Finance podcast and say such things and, and it's fair to say I've got a little bit of heat on that post as well. Yeah. From, from some other people with a similar views to yourself, and what I said in reply there was like, there's many different ways to be productive for sure. But, but really my post is inspired by a guy called Cal Newport, who is my kind of favorite person that I found on productivity. And he's written a couple of books I, I enjoyed called Deep Work, Yeah. one. And then Digital Minimalism as well. And Deep Work is really about, His, his KPIs.
So his main personal KPI is how many hours of deep work has he done? And that deep work is time with kind of no interruptions. Might use a Pomodoro technique, which i, I quite enjoy. And that really resonated with me because, you know, there are so many distractions out there. There's so much noise and, and digital minimalism really spoke to me because I found my screen time was up to like four and a half hours per day.
And, you know, working a regular job, four and a half hours per day screen time. And, and I, there's some things I want to do, you know, that I wanna do. The side hustle, we've got a family now, so spend more time with the family, you know, time to exercise. I, I wanna write some books, I wanna do some big things.
And that's what realized for me that it was really about cutting back on that screen time. And in Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport, he talks a lot about apps and. The one thing that was really pleasing to me and I find this consistently in books I like to read, is that he was actually called out The Economist by name. He was talking about deleting all your apps and said keep some high quality ones like The Economist. And I thought, Oh, this, this is, this is great. This, this fits in for me. And and that's been mentioned in some other books as well. So, so that really kind of makes me proud to work at The Economist.
But, but what he was saying is companies will spend so much on apps, and apps are all about attenation. And, you know, you'll get, I remember I used to kind of get the push notifications and I, they'd annoy me, you know, they're red for a reason because it's, it's that color that really kind of, you, you notice from an evolutionary perspective, I'd go in and I'd check all the push notifications and clear down all the, all the red alerts and.
And now I've just, I mean, that is a complete waste of time for most apps, unless it's one that you particularly like. So then the approach is just clear down as many apps as you can do, keep those high quality ones that you use all the time. But you don't need to have a hundred apps. Yeah, you, you can probably get away with a handful in most cases certainly with my job and my lifestyle.
So what that post is really about. Saying, I'm not saying productivity apps aren't useful but it's more of the mindset of I need an app. So just sort of challenging yourself. Well, are those productivity apps? Doing it for you should, could you just choose one that does the best for you? And time spent on your phone.
Again, you are in a, a different sphere to me, Adam, so it's different for different people and, and maybe even different ages of people. But, but yeah, audit your interruptions and, and just check that the technology's working for you and not the other.
[00:36:10] Adam: I, I agree. Yeah. I, I agree. And, and I think I'd, I can't remember what it does, but I think I did a, a post not too long though that was basically, software isn't always the answer.
You know, that there is such thing as too much of a good thing. So I think you, you and I are aligned in that thinking. I'm, I'm guilty of being on my phone quite a lot. Not, not necessarily. I'm just looking at my screen time now. Not necessarily with the, with the social media and all that sort of stuff, but, As you said with kids, you know, there's, there's a, there's a lot to do and not enough time to do it, and the app that I use most often is OneNote because it's synced across my phone and my computer.
So if I've gotta finish work early, And I've gotta do something, well, I say 'got to do', and 'I choose to do' something with the kids. Then it could be nine o'clock at night when I've got the baby asleep on my lap that I'm writing down notes and all that sort of thing. But I have been keeping an eye on it because it's very easy for that 30 minutes on OneNote to then turn into, Oh, I'll spend 10 minutes, you know, on LinkedIn.
You know, and searching out those red notification buttons, they are a little bit addictive. You know, dopamine is a, is a good and horrible thing the same time. Right. But I've read Deep Work. Love that book. Think it's great. I've not read digital minimalism, so I'll have to check that one out. Have you read 'When' By Dan Pink?
Daniel Pink? No, I'll send you the, send you the link. It kind of ties to deep work. And we could go down a rabbit hole. I'll try not to go down too much of a rabbit hole. But everybody's got a different... How is it described? Everybody's got a different productive phase. Yeah. So whether you're a night owl, you know, a morning lark or whatever the middle ground is, there is going to be a best time to have that deep work.
Yeah. So it's not just about the deep work, it's about the deep work and the time that you know, that you're actually gonna be able to do the deep work. So I'd really recommend that because it gave me a completely different perspective on time management. The other thing, and I, and I agree with deleting apps on the phone, and I promise I'll stop after this.
So what, what I did is I, I basically turned off all of the notifications on my phone. Yeah. So I don't have Outlook on my phone. I deliberately don't have Outlook because I can't deal with having instant access to my email. So I just can't, so I just don't do it. But for LinkedIn, you know, the, the other apps that do get push notifications, I turn 'em off, which is good on one hand because it means that I can choose when I want to go in and clear down, you know, the WhatsApp messages or the, the LinkedIn notifications or whatever it happens to be.
But it's also a bad thing because if you don't get the notifications, you don't know whether you've got notification or not. So sometimes you find yourself going into the app to figure out whether you've got notifications or not. So it's kind of a double edged sword. So I think I might take your advice and, and instead just delete the app and say, Right, well, you know, let's just do LinkedIn browser only for 15 minutes a day, for example. You know, and it might add in a bit more structure, but who knows? You know, it changes week to week.
[00:39:24] Howard: Yeah, I mean it, it's really challenging. And so one of the other concepts, I think you'll like digital minimalism, by the way, it's a lot like similar things we talked about.
There's also a concept of like chunking things together. So you might say, Okay, well I've got an hour so that I am just going to go and do kind of admin, I'm gonna like, I will go into check my email, you know, check apps, I'll clear down some messages, that sort of thing.
So we, we can't get away from that. And, and we need that to be able to operate in our personal and worlife, but it's just trying to make sure it doesn't sprawl over your whole afternoon or evening, you know, you're being a bit more targeted with those admin tasks.
A new approach to prioritisation
[00:40:07] Adam: So is that, is that your approach to prioritization then?
You, you basically carve out a, a chunk and then you assess, you know, what's most important? You know, what do I need to get done and we'll spend 90 minutes, two hours on that chunk.
[00:40:21] Howard: Yeah. Well, I'd say, I mean, it's a little bit different work wise or personal wise. So actually I find. Personal prioritization is a little bit easier because you've, for me, I've got, there's a couple of big goals that I want to achieve, and all I'm aiming to do every day is to do so I do Pomodoro.
Yeah. Which, which people may have heard of, which essentially is about setting up a timer. Yeah. And just using that timer to kind of keep you honest and, and not having any interruptions. So I will, I'll aim for 2 35 minute Pomodoros on big life stuff every day in, in the morning to your, to your point, getting up early.
Yeah. No interruptions. And then work wise, so I, I did a post on this a while ago having, having you think about prioritization. I just wrote down a few ideas. So this is, this is sort of a pathway that I follow.
So firstly, Am I the right person to be doing it. I think that that's really important cause in the past I've tried to be that sort of people pleaser that does things I shouldn't really be doing. So that's the easiest way you are clear up some time is by putting people in touch with the right people.
Second I'll say is my manager aware? So sometimes in the past I've been doing things that have come up and, and I've not been aligned with my manager. So one thing I try and do in the one to ones is just come up with an agreed list of priorities. They're, they're important and urgent matrix so that Eisenhower Matrix. Yeah.
And a lot of what we've talked about, the noise is you're getting dragged into that important and urgent and, and I actually know people, I've spoken to people that. Like monitoring and answering Slack and email is pretty much, that's, that's become their job, you know? And, and I don't think anyone sets out to get there. And, and that hamster wheel is, it's your ticket to no personal growth. It's your ticket to no personal growth being under appreciated at, at work being underpaid, you know, getting frustrated.
So like you said, that dopamine hit. Doing things, getting them done, tick things off. The hamster will provides you with that, but you really need to be taking some time out and, and doing the strategic things forcefully, booking time for strategic things. Otherwise, five years have gone. What are you gonna write on your CV?
I monitored Slack channels and emails for five years. Like it's really possible to do that. So yeah, trying to try and make some time for strategic things.
Then a couple of important ones. Do I need input from anyone else? So that I find most of the battle is getting the data and getting things from other people.
When I've got everything that I need, I can finish that bit off. That's like the last cherry on the cake type thing. So input from anyone else that's asked nice and early. Do I have the data I need? When's the deadline? Who's the audience? And then importantly, like what's the impact if I don't do it?
You know, I, I really encourage my team to pushback and say, Well, we do a lot of reporting. What's the business impact of this? How is it gonna improve profitability? And it's always a difficult discussion. And the answer might be, we need to do it anyway. But actually, if we keep on asking those questions over time, we can, we can turn that around a little bit.
And you might not always win the argument on that. You probably won't, but actually if you get that culture going yes, then yeah, eventually you'll see some benefit from that.
[00:44:18] Adam: Yeah, and, and I do identify with, with your process there, and if you can pull out the post and send me the link, then I'll include that in the, the show notes as well.
I'll also include your controversial post on not using productivity apps as well. So we'll, we'll do that. But my, my process, I mean, I try to keep it simple as well. So the only app that I now, and I used to use loads, but the only app that I now use for task management is Todoist.
And I've only got three pots, which is the do today, I dunno whether it's do tomorrow or do sometime. And then some, basically three pot that align with that. You know, do, delegate, delete kind of, kind of mentality from that Eisenhower matrix. But the reason I do that is, and I'm still terrible for having Outlook open and having sort of an eye on the screen here and then something else going on there.
I do try and check myself every now and then, but having Todoist integrated with Outlook. I can put that email into Todoist mark it as checked and then I can put it into a bucket. So as opposed to everything being unread and urgent, there's, there's a gate that says, Right, well how urgent is it? What bucket does it go in?
And then I can revisit after the fact. And what I've found doing things that way is if the task goes into the bottom bucket, two months can elapse, but actually nothing bad has come from you not doing anything with it. And I think people would surprise themselves and I think people too often get caught up in things apparently being urgent, but actually people just maybe asked off a whim and it's, it's not something that's either relevant or essential.
So I think, yeah, being strict with yourself as well as, as you say, being as strict as you can with others and, you know, embedding that culture says, Look, we all need to be efficient. It's not gonna happen if we're all spending our time in emails and slack all the time. It's the little things over time that add up to, to the big results, I guess.
[00:46:18] Howard: Yeah, yeah, yeah. A big believer in marginal gains. You know, if you can save that 1, 2% and reinvest it in more interesting things, then it, Yeah. It's only gonna be to your benefit.
[00:46:31] Adam: Yeah. Excellent. So I wanna, I wanna come on to talk about your courses. And then we can, we can wrap up by, you know, you telling people where they can find out more.
And then as, as I say, I'll link to that in the show notes as well. We're coming up to half past, have you got another 10 minutes? Is is that?
[00:46:47] Howard: Yeah, that's fine. Yeah.
Courses to improve your soft skills
[00:46:48] Adam: Cool. So Financesoftskills.com. I'm getting that right, aren't I? Good. So there's two courses. So you've got leadership and influencing, that that one came first, right? And then you've got the become a confident networker. So do you wanna speak a little bit more about where they came from, who they're aimed at, and, and what you are hoping people can get out of those courses?
[00:47:21] Howard: Yeah, sure. So, so I took an interest in soft skills in my personal life about five years ago.
So I had a, a relationship breakup and it's quite a lonely time, so I, I lost, you know, our mutual friends had to move out of the house that we shared and it kind of felt a bit like starting again, really. So I, I moved out Central London. I was doing like lots of socializing at the time for meeting a lot of interesting people.
And I saw a course called 'How to Never Run Out of Things to Say'. Okay. And have more interesting conversations, run by a guy called Ryan Williams. Okay. And I thought, Wow, I've never thought about how to structure a conversation. Think about how many conversations you've had in your life. Never thought about how to structure it.
And I went along and, and it was, it was such a cool evening and met some great people there as well. So I started having some coaching with Ryan around soft skills. Again, it's quite an unusual thing to find someone that can coach you on that. And then sort of started doing some coaching myself and then really realizing I was at a nice intersection of, Soft skills are what get gets you promoted.
Finance people aren't always historically known for their soft skills, let's say. So I thought there's a really good opportunity to kind of have some specifically finance tailored courses in soft skills and, and I don't think there are any others available as far as I've. I found they're the only courses on soft skills to finance people.
So as you say, there's that leadership and influencing. There's networking. There's a few other ones around. Positivity and resilience. Embracing change. Relationships and rapport, and attention and prioritization, which is a lot of what we've touched on already. So that, that's probably one of my favorites.
And they're really aimed at sort of junior to mid finance people particularly networking, something I think we all know we should be doing more of. Some practical tips. So they'll, yeah, very kind of inexpensive price points or 49 dollars video base. You can dip in and out whenever you want to.
Lots of practical examples. There's a sheet to kind of capture progress and, and to let me know how you're on. So yeah, I really think it's, it's a new kind of innovation for me. Testing out what, you know, what people think of it, but I think that there's a massive opportunity there for, particularly for people that are moving over maybe for more transactional roles.
Yeah. Those roles that maybe being automated or at risk of automation, moving into the relationship roles just learning some of those soft skills and, and then being able to like compound those benefits. You know, the early you start learning the, the more runway you have to improve those soft skills.
[00:50:11] Adam: Absolutely. Sounds really good, and it's nice to hear this, the story and the, the background of how it all, all came to be. It's, it's surprising what happens. It, it's surprising how changes in our personal life can inspire. New, new directions as, as it were. So, so it's, you know, as much as you, you sound like you've had a tough time some, some good has come out of it. So, you know, looking at the, the glass is always half full, you know, it's a credit to you for, for doing it. But the, the ones that I found, are on Gum Road, which you've got a link to in your LinkedIn profile, which the, the become a confident networker and the, the leadership in influencing what were the others that you mentioned?
[00:50:54] Howard: Yeah, so there, there's a few that are just gonna be posted fairly shortly. So yeah, the, the attention and prioritization a lot of what we focused on already. In, in this conversation, positivity and resilience. Again, I think that's really kind of important skills that we need. Embracing change and problem solving and then building relationships and rapport.
So that's the kind of suite of six courses that cover I think, the main soft skills areas and yeah, there's always more to work on. So, yeah, I think always thinking about the, the next course.
[00:51:30] Adam: Yeah, very. I'm sure you've already got some ideas for the next course, right?
Why you should have a personal brand
[00:51:35] Howard: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think the, the personal brand is a really interesting one. So something that I've been working on as part of the side hustle. But also something that's really important internally. And, and actually if your personal brand is strong, then that's gonna be a real key determinant of you getting that internal promotion. It, it, it's so important.
It's something that most finance people don't spend really any time on.
[00:52:04] Adam: Yeah, it's sometimes a tricky conversation to broach though, isn't it? Because you want to be transparent with the people that you work with, that you have the appetite to develop a personal brand. And sometimes that can go in two directions.
Sometimes people see it as a. Why are they, are they not invested in the business? Why are they developing a personal brand? Whereas others do encourage it. And I, and I've seen both sides of, of the spectrum, but I think I, I won't necessarily say there's an element of shortsightedness, but in the majority of instances, you know, taking you and I as examples the personal brand and the, the side hustle or whatever you refer to it as, it, it complement our day to day.
You know, you, you, you often find that if, if, if people have got a, an amazing new business idea in a different industry that they're probably not gonna do that alongside the other do, do you see what I mean, so your coaching supports your work at The Economist and obviously Tech For Finance supports the work that I do.
So I think there is now a world that is becoming more open to ideas that encourages personal And I'm seeing more and more of it.
[00:53:15] Howard: Yeah. Yeah. I, I really think that's the case. I mean, I, I know that people at The Economist have got significant side hustles in, in some instances, and I think increasingly it's been seen as a, a positive thing.
And I think even personal branding, I mean, you don't necessarily need to have the side hustle. We know that your personal brand, you can kind of think of it like your internal reputation. As well. So I totally agree with you. I mean, I've found that this is the most I've learnt in a short space of time really trying to, you know, develop courses, sell courses, market courses get the message out there.
It's been an incredible kind of couple of years for me. But even if you're not doing that, just having an eye on your internal reputation, what you're known for, how, how do people perceive you is, is super important and that really will help you to get that internal promotion. It's one of the the key things you can do that most people don't spend much time on.
[00:54:18] Adam: Yeah, I think that's a good shout. Yeah, definitely something actionable that can be taken away from today. Cause it, you know, the steps are, are pretty small. You know, if, if you're not, you know, recording podcasts or you know, writing training courses, there's probably still some quick wins. Whether it's just, you know, paying a little bit more attention to your LinkedIn profile and how you're percieved to others, or, you know, is it a modification to your email signature?
You know, it is little things like that. So it could be baby steps before you transition to being a completely new person, I guess. Very good. Cool, it's been an absolute pleasure, Howard. How, how can people get in touch? I'll, I'll share your LinkedIn profile in the show notes, is there anywhere else people can, can find your content, find your courses.
[00:55:09] Howard: Yeah, so LinkedIn's the best place to find me, and I I'll post there every day usually in, in the morning. So yeah, come and say hi comment and, and interact is, is always welcome. And then other than that, yeah, financesoftskills.com is the website. So that's where I'll be yeah, you'll find all the links to the courses and some sort of longer form content as well, and ability to subscribe to the newsletter.
[00:55:36] Adam: Excellent. So I'll, I will include some, some of your posts in the show notes as well. I'll include the links to, to financesoftskills. And then maybe at some point in the future we, we can have a a, a round two conversation when, when Finance Soft Skills has now got 20 courses and you know, you, you, you've smashed that and we can have a discussion about why it's been such a success.
So I look forward to that conversation as well.
[00:55:59] Howard: Yeah, that'd be great. It'd be uh, it'd be great to come back.
[00:56:01] Adam: Yeah. All rig ht Howard. Well thanks so much for your time
[00:56:03]Howard: All right. Cheers Adam