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6 Business Lessons From the London Olympics

Beckham, pounds, crisps, carry on: The British have taught me a few things this week at the Olympics. I'm bringing these lessons back to my small business in America.
People walk in front of the Olympic stadium at the Olympic park of London during the 2012 Olympic Games.
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My wife of 22 years is British and, as a result, has endured much abuse from me and our kids. Over the course of countless visits to her family in northwest London over the past two decades, she's heard all the jokes about the bad food, the bad teeth, and the bad weather.

Back at home in the U.S., she's often forced to explain to our friends what a loo is and to repeat words to adults who can't decipher her accent. She clears out an entire room full of people just by whipping out a jar of Marmite and a butter knife. Being British, particularly among a family of the ugliest of Americans, has not been easy for this poor woman.

And now it's the Olympics. And so we came to London to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime event with our three teenage kids and their three teenage friends. We went to basketball, soccer, beach volleyball, badminton, and other events. And you know what? Wow. That's what.

We were amazed by the Olympic Park. We were impressed by the organization of events. And mostly, we were overwhelmed by the British themselves. We normally see them grimly shuffling to work, swearing at their athletes, and enduring the challenges of living in London. But the Olympics has put them in a different light. Despite what you may have been hearing in the media, we've watched an entire country of volunteers and organizers enthusiastically come together to pull off an amazing feat: host the world, cheer for Team Great Britain, have a good time, and put on a fantastic show.

The British have taught me a few things this week at the Olympics. And I plan to take these lessons back to my business in America.

1. Spend a few pence to save a few pounds.

When we received our Olympic tickets a few months ago, we also received a London Transport travel card for each day. This seemed to me a little strange. Until I got to London. And then I saw the brilliance. Because if we, along with every other ignorant American and tourist, had to figure out the fare system and buy Tube tickets for each day, the lines would've probably stretched to Paris. Some very, very smart and obscure British person somewhere figured this out. I'm sure that person ran into headwinds, too. "What, just GIVE everyone a Tube ticket?" I can hear the critics say in that accent reserved exclusively for Hollywood villains. But that brilliant person figured out that the money spent on Transport tickets would save organizers millions in bad public relations and unhappy customers. And the person is right. We've been minding the gap all week with no complaints whatsoever. To save, you must spend. And sometimes even an intangible return on investment might be more valuable than you think.

2. Always order enough crisps.

Tearing ourselves away one morning from the riveting basketball game between Tunisia and Nigeria (in case you were sitting on the edge of your seat, Nigeria won), my wife and I ran down to the concession stand for a coffee and found that the coffee stand was out of coffee. And out of crisps, too. (This was probably a good thing, because eating a packet of prawn cocktail crisps at 9 in the morning is recommended only for the hardiest of British foodies--or the mentally ill.)  At lunchtime that day, we decided to risk it and get a salt beef sandwich on rye bread with pickles. Except the stand was out of rye bread. And pickles. These are not big things, but I overheard many people grumbling about it. It's amazing how you can spend billions to erect an amazing facility and still upset people because they can't get a pickle with a sandwich. The details really are important. Sweat them.

3. Ignore the critics.

And so what if you're quirky and you like Mr. Bean? Rowan Atkinson, the guy who plays Mr. Bean, is an Oxford-educated electrical engineering major. And he was hilarious during the opening ceremonies. The British like to laugh at themselves. Among their top-selling magazines is Private Eye, and one of their most popular TV shows is Russell Howard's Good News, a current-events satire. Their biggest-selling newspaper unabashedly posts a bare-chested 21-year-old beauty (not that I would, ahem, know about this, of course). The point of their opening ceremonies was not to wow the world with Chinese technology or American Hollywood effects. It was to say to the world, "Hey, we're British. We've contributed plenty to the world. We're proud of ourselves, and we don't care if you don't think it's very funny to watch the Queen jump out of a helicopter. We do." In other words, if you believe in yourself and your company, don't pay attention to the critics. Just do it. And to hell with everyone else. Great innovators and successful business people have this kind of self-confidence. And I bet many of them also think Mr. Bean is hilarious.

4. Keep calm and carry on.

Speaking of Mr. Bean, the Brits have already made tons of mistakes. For example, according to the Associated Press, "During a mass celebratory bell-ringing to mark the start of the games, Olympics Secretary Jeremy Hunt's bell went flying off its handle and narrowly avoided a bystander." Despite being billed as sold-out, many events were showing empty premium seats on TV. (That was until British military guys were allowed to attend and, given their choice of events, immediately flocked to a women's beach volleyball match. Can I get a huzzah?) A mysterious woman walked along with the Indian athletic delegation without authorization. The keys were lost to Wembley Stadium. And when organizers mistakenly showed the South Korean flag to introduce the North Korean women's soccer team (these countries are of course bitter enemies and still technically at war), one enterprising small-business owner, an optician, says AP, "ran a full-page ad displaying the two completely different-looking Korean flags and suggesting that anyone who can't tell the difference should stop by for a checkup."

As a visitor here in London, I watched organizers absorb the media abuse, make adjustments, and move on. When launching a product, starting a project, hiring a new person, expanding a business, you're going to make mistakes. People are going to criticize. Take a lesson from London: Laugh, learn, adjust, and carry forward.

5. People make you successful.

In this world of mobile phones, social media, and cloud-based computing, we've been told that the great companies are the ones maximizing profitability by minimizing the work required by people and investing in technology. But here in London, it's a different story. Sure, the Olympic organizers are using plenty of technology to pull off this huge event. But from the moment you arrive at Heathrow, get on the Tube, arrive at the Olympics complex, and walk to your event, you see it's the people who are making it happen. OK, not necessarily this person. People in brightly colored shirts smile and point you the right way. Soldiers with guns ensure our security (and my wife's adoring gaze). Workers efficiently deal with the queues, the questions, and the kids. Entertainers and dancers keep us occupied between events. There's no technology here. Just people. And it reminds me that in my company, despite all the hype about technology, it's my people who will make me successful. That's surely the case here.

6. Bend it like Beckham.

Most important, I want to be more like Beckham. What, like that guy isn't a total boss? Watching him speedboat alone down the Thames carrying the Olympic torch as fireworks exploded around him made me fantasize, very briefly, what it would be like to be married to this man. Beckham is cool and capable and was the right guy for the job. His confidence is infectious. You'd never know that a billion people were watching him, and that anything could've happened to screw up his journey to the stadium. (This is England, you know.) Am I that cool and capable with my clients? Am I confident? Do I make them feel confident in my abilities? Am I a superrich, superfamous soccer player with a hot wife who used to be in the Spice Girls? No, I'm a middle-class, slightly overweight, former accountant who looks more like George Costanza than a professional athlete. But my clients don't have to know these thoughts. They're hiring me to do a job, and I'll do it confidently like Beckham.

I've learned plenty of things during this Olympics week in London. I've learned how to tell a young child to "shut up" in 17 languages. I've learned that cricket is truly more boring than baseball. I've learned to look right when I cross the street. I've learned to love PG Tips Tea, Cadbury Flake, and tuna fish sandwiches with butter. Most important, I've learned a few lessons for running my business better when I return home. And for that, Great Britain, I thank you.

IMAGE: Guillaume Baptiste/AFP/GettyImages
Last updated: Aug 1, 2012

GENE MARKS | Columnist | Owner, Marks Group

Gene Marks is a columnist, author, and small-business owner. He oversees the Marks Group, a 10-person technology consultancy to small and medium-size businesses. A certified public accountant, Marks has also worked in the entrepreneurial services arm of KPMG. He writes for The New York Times, Forbes, and The Huffington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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