With Humble Crumbles, an enlightening, unnerving, ridiculously helpful memoir and manual by Sydney-born Paul O’Donnell and Sylvana Caloni.
It chronicles the rise and fall of his London dream project, Humble Pie, selling gourmet Aussie pies. Its full title is Humble Crumbles: Savouring the Crumbs of Wisdom from the Rise and Fall of Humble Pie.
The book’s authors both re-invented themselves professionally in the UK, with Caloni embarking on a new career in coaching. The pair work seamlessly together in print, with Paul recounting specific examples of what to do and what not to do wearing the entrepreneur’s hat, while Caloni examines the successes and failures of the project from a broader human, strategic and financial perspective.
The two also address the concept of failure, something ingrained in most of us only as a negative. They reveal that there are unseen advantages to not necessarily accomplishing one’s goals immediately out of the starting gate. Best of all, Paul shares some of his formerly heavily guarded recipes, meaning this is indeed best read with a large slice of Humble Pie.
Paul, you were a senior executive at Bankers Trust in Sydney before working in Asia setting up an asset management company, then moving to Washington DC, and finally London where you became an entrepreneur in the gourmet pies business. So, I have to ask – why pies?
POD: Like most Australians I love a good pie. I found an award-winning pie shop on Sydney’s northern beaches and was inspired. The hard part of starting a new entrepreneurial business is having a good idea and I’d been searching for quite a while. England invented the pie (actually I think it might have been Wales) and the quality was pretty much dire with few notable exceptions. To me it ticked a lot of boxes; gap in the market, wide recognition and appeal and the right price point.
What led to the idea for the book? I’m assuming Humble Crumbles is the product of your time in lockdown? Did you have a eureka moment or was the book idea something that evolved gradually?
POD: I learned a huge amount from my time establishing and running the Humble Pie business. It had some great successes but it ultimately failed. Both Sylvana and I mentor graduate students of entrepreneurship and we often found the ‘elephant in the room’ was the dreaded f-word, failure. To me my story was of an entrepreneurial effort that I believed should be shared and would provide budding entrepreneurs with some very useful lessons. The real gem in the book is the overlay Sylvana provides from her observations and advice as an experienced leadership coach and equity analyst. The book was completed during the coronavirus lockdown but we actually started it four years ago.
SC: I take my hat off to Paul. In a world of social media where successes are curated, it takes courage to acknowledge your mistakes and generosity to share them so that others can learn and be inspired to take on the risks of an entrepreneurial journey. Paul’s story is so valuable because it is raw, real and humorous. He had the humility and capacity to become aware of his blind spots and to learn new ways of thinking and behaving.
What we can learn from your experiences in the pie business (and other ventures)?
POD: Through telling a real story our end-game is to help budding and seasoned entrepreneurs to consider how their personality, values, decisions and the people whom they trust shape the outcomes and the ultimate fate of their venture.
SC: Our book is concise, easy-to-read and addresses what is key to success – not so much the technical or textbook advice about setting up and running a business. We peel back the layers of the entrepreneur’s mindset, values, attitudes and responses to risk.
Sylvana – how did your experience as a leadership coach help you collaborate with Paul on the book – and can you talk about where you are now in your career coming from the financial world?
SC: Entrepreneurship and leadership go hand-in-hand. Many of the questions that leaders have to ask of themselves are also relevant to entrepreneurs. In both cases their success relies on deep self-awareness. Without it they assume everyone has the same standards, norms and practices that they do. This can lead to misunderstanding, conflict and unfulfilled projects and initiatives.
Working with Paul on Humble Crumbles we were able to uncover his blind spots. Some of the actions he took, while well-intentioned actually had the opposite effect and ultimately caused the downfall of his business.
When I left the world of funds management and equity analysis I didn’t really appreciate the importance of self-awareness and self-compassion to success. However, partnering with a coach for my own development and working with my coaches I learned just how critical they are.
Some have remarked that my previous career and coaching seem at odds. While I no longer work with spreadsheets to determine the return on investing in companies there is a common thread. I had to look beneath the numbers to uncover what was really going on – to distinguish between the “apparent and the real”. Similarly, with my coachees we have to peel back the layers of their thinking to get to what is really motivating their ambitions and fears.
What’s the most common mistake people get wrong when starting a new business?
POD: Letting their prejudices and biases get in the way. Thinking they can do it alone.
SC: They are so excited about their product or service that they fall in love with their solution, without continuously testing the customer’s response or need. Consequently, they don’t pace themselves and may commit too much money on ‘bells and whistles’ too soon in the process.
Similarly in their conviction about their idea they don’t “test, learn and tweak”. They may too readily dismiss objections and challenges to the viability of their idea.
Successful entrepreneurship is a balancing act; between being a self-starter and knowing when to ask for help; having a strong conviction and asking “what if I’m wrong?”; reaching for the stars and having your feet firmly planted on the ground; seeing opportunities and spending sensibly.
You embrace the word failure – can you talk about why we shouldn’t be scared to fail, what we can learn from it, what are the positives?
SC: Success is an iterative process – rarely do we get it right first time. Many household names, such as Netflix, didn’t succeed in their first incarnation. The success of the entrepreneur is to be nimble and adapt.
And they have to keep their spirits up when they encounter the inevitable bumps along the road and naysayers. It’s a balancing act they need to persevere and yet not be so wedded to their solution that they don’t listen to legitimate concerns or challenges to the viability of their ideas. They have to listen deeply and remain open to incorporate changes that will enhance their ideas.
When you could see the business wasn’t going well – what kept you going, what mistakes did you make during this time that maybe exacerbated the situation?
POD: I found myself between a rock and a hard place. If I shut the business the chances of getting the investors’ money back evaporated. I was grateful for their support and didn’t want to disappoint them. If I kept it going it was going to cost even more to keep it afloat. I tried various strategies that didn’t make a material difference and eventually I couldn’t see anything on the horizon that was going to turn the business around. Towards the end I found I was grasping at too many straws hoping they would redeem the situation. But this just put off the inevitable.
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
POD: Entrepreneurs are often very passionate, strong-willed and believe in themselves. These are important contributors to success. However, if overplayed they can lead to blind spots and poor decision making. Don’t just assume you know what makes you tick. You need to dig deeper to uncover what your real drivers, ambitions and fears are.
What has been the reaction from readers so far?
SC: I’ve been delighted that people who generally are not big readers have found Humble Crumbles easily digestible, thought-provoking and a resource that they will come back to as they reflect and practise what they learned.
We hadn’t expected that parents would use the book as a catalyst to conversations with their teenage kids about economics, retailers, ethics and sustainability. Others have passed on the book to their kids who are interested in starting up a business.
Those who have their own businesses have found it very valuable to them in re-affirming why they went into business and what they want to achieve. Many have enjoyed the humour and the three bonus pie recipes!
Looking back on your careers – would you have done anything differently? Any regrets?
POD: For my part, I have thoroughly enjoyed the global professional and personal experience and my only regret is having left Australia for such a long time. I’ve been incredibly fortunate which I don’t take for granted.
SC: I would have taken more risks. I tended to treat failure as fatal rather than an opportunity to take stock and redirect my efforts and explorations.
Due to the positive reaction, are you thinking of writing more books? If so, on what?
SC: I’m keen to further develop the ideas of self-awareness and self-compassion. Humble Crumbles was designed very much as a taster or catalyst. I’d like to go deeper into some of the models and ideas and provide more case studies that are relevant to people across different fields and interests.
POD: Yes, there will be more books. In my pipeline is another collaboration with Sylvana. There is also a novel which is in the early draft stage, a kids book which is done but needs some work and a second book of poetry following on from one I published last year.
Paul – talk about your poetry, where you go under the name POD The Poet. Were you always a poet or did you discover this talent recently? Do you see this as another career?
POD: I think I was a closet poet for decades and it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I decided to do something about it. I have always loved the sound of words and the musicality of rhyme. I also like the unconstrained way poetry can be used to express the moment and can surface hidden emotions. I’ve been publishing a new poem pretty much every week on social media for the past year or so. There’s so much to think and write about and the coronavirus pandemic has brought into sharp focus so many aspects of our life and communities that have been blurred for years.
It is a kind of career. My intention is to keep writing poetry until I run out of things to observe and say.
What do you regard as your first professional risk?
POD: I think the first professional big risk I took was moving to Bankers Trust away from the security of the Commonwealth Bank which was a wonderful collegiate family at that time. The second risk I took to move to Asia was much easier.
While it was painful that I had to shut Humble Pie, I don’t regret starting it for a moment. I met some fascinating people, had some very funny experiences (what do you do with 500 kilos of dry ice when we wanted 500 grams or 1,500 branded t-shirts for 20 staff?). And you know; I actually built something really cool!