“If we live for 1000 months, we will be 83 years old when we die. When I decided to make my change I had lived about 600 months.”
“We were living a life of shoulds. We were doing what we thought we should. What society suggested we should do. And I wasn’t sure that the work we were doing actually mattered. I was rudderless. And worse than that - purposeless.”
Overview of earlier career
I founded four business communications companies over 15 years or so. Running concurrently, they turned over about £1.25 million, employing 30 people at their peak. I think we were well respected by most people as clever and innovative. We won 70 awards around the world.
The trigger for change?
The companies were doing well. My partner Lisa worked inside the businesses with me. We had nice cars and bought the picturesque 5 bedroom house we’d imagined. It had a nice big garden of course. With one of those gates that opened when you pushed a button. All very showy and, as we soon found out, all rather unnecessary and vacuous too.
We had everything we wanted.
But it was the wrong everything.
Within 6 months, we’d split up.
We were living a life of shoulds. We were doing what we thought we should. What society suggested we should do. And I wasn’t sure that the work we were doing actually mattered. I was rudderless. And worse than that - purposeless.
I had to dig deep to decide whether I was working with the right kind of clients at the Business Communications agencies. Was I really helping them do what they needed to do? Or was I just servicing a million pound overhead?
Lisa and I got back together. And eventually I realised that I wasn’t doing the work that I was supposed to be doing. As I’d got older, I had met more and more people who weren’t doing work that they were supposed to be doing - people who were stuck. And I had become one of them.
What was it that I was born to do?
I had become part of that same problem. I was not doing what I felt I was born to do.
Quite suddenly, at the age of 45, I decided I didn’t want to be part of that problem any more. I wanted to become part of the change instead.
Discovering which direction
I didn’t know how to do work that mattered in the beginning. Or which direction to point at. So I waited.
I closed all my businesses within a year. And spent 3 months or so thinking.
In the far distance past, I was a creator of furniture and an interior designer. In my teens and early twenties.
When I ran the agencies, I ran creative processes and built creative teams. But I wasn’t being creative at all. I’d become a formulaic business man. And formulas bore me, big time! I knew I needed to be creative again.
Another catalyst for the direction of change was Claire who lived up the road from me when I was fifteen. I couldn’t speak to Claire unless I was wearing my special T-shirt. It had the power to transform my confidence. That was key to my direction change.
I had always wanted to create clothing. But in a world where 70% of all clothing is burnt or buried within a year of it being made, why do we need more clothes?
I understood that what we wear has the power to change how we feel and change what we do. Certain clothes make us stand taller, walk with more confidence and do amazing things.
I decided to create classic, beautiful, exceptional clothes to help people do amazing things.
A ‘buy less, buy better’ brand.
“Imagine a clothing brand whose purpose was to create confidence in the wearer…” I thought.
And Always Wear Read was created.
I found the best makers who make for the best brands in the world and got them to fall in love with my vision.
I wanted clothes that would last many, many years. And I wanted to support them with a repair service. They saw me as adventurous and they liked my stories. These makers make for Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Burberry - and me.
I chose to have red in every item to show off the exceptional craftmanship (it’s easier to see the top edge of a belt polished blood-red and is a nightmare to make) and it’s also the colour which is associated with confidence and the colour that the human eye sees first.
The colour red sat at the heart of our story.
The brand is now worn by Idris Elba and Will.i.am amongst others. Ralf Little owns the Always Wear Red business with Michael.
The brand creates amazing caps, hats, scarves, ties, pocket squares and socks.
Our sock maker makes for the British royal family. The material for our flat caps is woven in Yorkshire, and the caps themselves are hand made in Yorkshire.
Between 2015 and 2018 I mastered many items within the man’s accessories category.
And in 2019 to 2020 I am changing again. Morphing. Into a gender neutral brand that creates only amazing hand knits.
I have found the piece of clothing I love. So from 2020 I am focusing on doing one thing - really well.
What Michael learned?
Lifestyle changes aren’t the end of the world
Lifestyle changes can, in fact, be the start of a new world. A much better one.
We definitely have less stuff. When we decided to sell the big house we discovered so much stuff that we didn’t need. I’ve always loved clothes but am not sure I appreciated them as much as I do now. When we were decluttering and getting ready for the move, I found two pairs of the exact same All Saints trousers in the loft that I didn’t even remember buying.
Embarrassing. But true.
Always have a crazy, unusual side project.
It makes other things in your life seem less crazy when you do this. 50odd.com is my crazy project where I promised myself I’d write a decent blog story every day for ten years. From the very day that I was 50. That commitment was definitely a bit crazy but it reframes what “crazy” means and makes me braver in other areas of my life.
50odd.co.uk is so called because, when I started it I was 50. And because I’ve always been odd. Perfect!
Time is running out. Ours is just a visit. Decide what to do with your remaining months.
At the heart of 50odd.co.uk is the notion of 1000 months. If we live for 1000 months, we will be 83 years old when we die. When I decided to make my change I had lived about 600 months. If I was average, I’d have 400 left to live and I had to decide what I wanted to do with those months.
Men live to 80 years in the UK (960 months). Women live to 86 (1032 months).
Decide if you are the hero of your story, or if somebody else is.
I chat to lots of people who say that they can’t make a change because they have a mortgage to pay. Or because they like their two or three holidays a year. This is fine. But, mostly, we cannot have things all our way. If we decide to let our landlord or our mortgage provider be the hero of our story then, of course, we can’t be the hero. They are.
I imagine that on some people’s tombstones it will say “Here lies Ben. A man that never realised his true potential because he chose to be led by his mortgage payments.” Life is short. Lead; or be led.
Consider what your children would wish for their Dad
When our daughter Izobel came along two years ago, I found myself wondering what she would want for her Dad in the future. A dad who was living a life of shoulds (and had all the trappings of “success”) or a Dad who was doing work that mattered? To him. And to others. I chose the latter.
Find a new tribe
I wouldn’t have made it this far without the help and support of my new, more adventurous and tuned-in tribe. They understand the stresses and strains of being pioneering. Doing things that have not been done before would have been a lonely journey without this new tribe.
We are all very supportive of each other. For instance when a chap I know, Ben Branson from Seedlip battled to get the first alcohol free spirit into the market, he was bullied by the traditional spirits industry. He battled on with plenty of behind the scenes support from our tribe of pioneers. He’s now the first non-alcoholic spirit on Virgin Atlantic and many leading bars around the world.
You need a similar tribe to keep you going on the bad days.
How it feels on the days when Michael knows he has made the right decision?
I don’t always wake up knowing I’ve done the right thing because I understand that I can’t have it all.
Well, not yet I can’t.
I learned how to get good at building a business-to-business brand and got paid well for it. But what I am doing now is different. I’m now learning how to grow a business-to-consumer brand and it takes time. We’re in our fourth year.
But in general, I wake up feeling happier because I am surrounded by the right people. I have some lovely, old friends who live very safe lives. That’s fine. But it’s not for me. I crave creativity.
I needed to find my new, more adventurous tribe who do lovely interesting pioneering things. They’re a whole different breed. We’re able to keep each other going and pick each other up when things are not going so well.
I mostly feel excited by the potential of what I do. It could fail or fly. I’m excited because I don’t know what will happen but I’m invigorated by what could happen. I’m kind of enjoying the conclusion being out of my control. The balance of certainty and uncertainty.
And I am glad that I am not a talker. I am a do-er.
Yes. Sometimes I would like more things. For example, I’d love my little girl to have the big garden of our old house to run around in but we sold that and moved into our smaller city centre home.
But timing is everything. What may be right now was not right then.
I am building. A new future. For me and my family.