I use a few tools to help me keep on top of my email, calendar and task list. These are in addition to the basic Gmail and Google Calendar services.
Airmail – I’ve always preferred having my email in a client rather than in the browser and the cleaner and simpler the better. Airmail does the job very nicely if you’re a Mac user.
Sanebox – the filters/tabs for ‘promotions’ and so on in Gmail don’t really cut the mustard for my inbox – I need something that can spot just the important messages and filter out the rest. I also like to be able to have a set up where I only look at unimportant messages once a day. Sanebox does all of that and has some great other features too.
TextExpander – part of my job involves saying the same thing to lots of different people and so saving snippets in TextExpander saves me a lot of time. You soon remember the keyboard shortcuts to paste whole messages and then tweak before sending.
Motion – I’ve found that the best way for me to manage my task list is to allocate time for things directly on my calendar. Motion is the most intelligent way of doing that I’ve come across. You add things to the task list and then it automatically allocates them to a free slot in your calendar and updates as things change. Really helpful for less urgent but important recurring tasks.
HubSpot – we use Hubspot for a lot of things at work and I prefer their meeting booking experience over the other options I’ve tried. It means you can send a link to people for them to choose a time for a call.
I recommend all of them but also keen to hear if there’s anything else I should be trying!
I’ve been working around the edges of machine learning and AI for many years now. We implemented some basic machine learning in the startup I was running in 2006 and I watched as many other startups implemented similar things during the 2010s. As an investor at BGV I’ve seen our portfolio companies use AI to differing extents to build successful businesses and have a positive impact.
So I knew that the recent spate of LLM innovation was coming. It’s impressive to see what companies like OpenAI and others have achieved. There’s something uncanny about the interactions you have with ChatGPT or Bard and the like and I’ve watched it already have an impact on the stuff I read.
Unfortunately, the most obvious thing in my case is inbound unsolicited marketing emails. As I’m fairly public about my contact details, I’ve always had a fair amount of speculative sales messages from recruiters, outsourced software development houses, lead generation and many other services that I just never use. It doesn’t get flagged as spam but I use software called Sanebox (itself an interesting application of machine learning) to filter it and then have a quick scan once a day.
In the last couple of months, the nature of those emails has changed. They are now mainly generated by chatGPT and the like. Because there is enough information about me and BGV in the public domain, they can ‘personalise’ the approaches in a way that wasn’t possible. I’ve also noticed a fair amount of ChatGPT generated posts on Linkedin, Twitter and the like. It’s an interesting twist to sales and marketing but it leaves me underwhelmed.
Despite how impressive the technology is, so far I’ve found limited use cases for ChatGPT in ‘doing’ any part of my job. I find it useful for sense checking and improving the quality of output but it’s not capable of fundraising or making investment decisions. It can help but it’s a long way from being a direct replacement for human activity.
I’ve been asked quite a few times in the last six month about the relationship between tech for good and AI. The short answer is that it’s no different from any other technology. A tech for good AI startup will set out to intentionally solve a particular social or environmental issue and it will measure its impact as it tries to do that. No other AI startup will be tech for good. You can’t accidentally be tech for good.
Part of the reason for this post is that I think ChatGPT and the like will lead to people writing less and that is a shame. Seeing it in action has spurred me to do something which I’ve been thinking about for a while and start blogging again.
I’m going to try to write a weekly post, usually about tech or impact investing. Maybe I’ll just be talking to the bots. Does anybody ready blogs anymore? I’m not sure!
Everything on the internet is wrong so don’t take me too seriously. But I hope it will help me improve my thinking which is something that leaving everything to AI certainly won’t.
For the first part of 2021, my reading mainly consisted of Agatha Christie and John le Carré novels which I found were very easy to read with a tiny baby asleep on you. But as the year went on I found more time to read non-fiction and some more contemporary fiction. My top few of each were:
Our lady of perpetual hunger by Lisa Donovan – best known as a pastry chef whose work in New Orleans gained her international acclaim, this is a book about far more than cooking. It’s a phenomenal memoir and inspiring parenting and professional tale. But it also makes you want to try some of those old fashioned desserts from the American South.
The Premonition by Michael Lewis – there’s still nobody better at taking a technical and often bureaucratic system and making it into a gripping yarn. The Premonition is the story of the people who helped make sure that covid wasn’t as bad as it could have been under Donald Trump’s presidency.
The Key Man – brilliant reportage about something very close to home in my day job. Abraaj was one of the first high profile international investment firms that called themselves impact investors. They had billions under management – the trouble was, it was all based on lies and fraud. There are lessons for all of us in the impact investing world from the book but it’s also a cracking good read as Wall Street Journal journalists Clark and Louch piece together what really happened.
Everything I learned about life I learned from PowerPoint. Russell Davies settled down in lockdown to write this love letter to a piece of software that is both a wonderful piece of social commentary and a compendium of tips for how to give better presentations. I remember first seeing Russell do a presentation at a conference in Newcastle years ago and knowing straight away that he was a master of the craft.
Contacts by Mark Watson – I think Mark Watson is one of the best comedians of his generation but he’s also a fantastic novelist. This is an alternative take on the power of social media and smart phones. I can’t work out whether it will feel dated in a few years time or whether it will still make sense. Having read all those Agatha Christie novels earlier in the year I think it might last.
Broken Stars by Ken Liu. I’ve developed a liking for Chinese sci-fi and this year I read another collection of short stories. There are several that have stuck with me, particularly one where lives run in the opposite direction through Chinese history since 1945. It’s a phenomenal piece of creativity.
Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky – this however was the best sci-fi I read in 2021. Adrian Tchaikovsky deservedly won the Arthur C Clarke award for this. So many nooks and crannies of imagination and you’re left thinking very differently about our possible place in the universe.
It was an odd year but I really enjoyed reading. I made it through a book every couple of weeks – 26 in total – and these were my favourites. Maybe this year I’ll make it to a book a week.
Wilding by Isabella Tree – my review here. This genuinely changed the way I think about nature and the countryside.
The Man Who Solved the Market by Gregory Zuckerman. A brilliantly written story of Renaissance, the incredibly successful investment firm created by Jim Simons. The problem was it didn’t have a purpose other than making money and that eventually made monsters or bitter men of its senior staff – including one of them becoming the biggest backer of Donald Trump’s election 2016 campaign.
Eat a Peach by David Chang – a great book about business and mental health with the odd bit of cooking thrown in.
Exhalation by Ted Chiang – Chiang is the author of the piece that became the movie Arrival. This collection of short stories is a great selection of new writing.
The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. It won the US National Book Award in 2004 and is set in the aftermath of the Second World War in Asia and Europe.
Agency by William Gibson. He’s still cyberpunk and still great. His new novel is set in near-future/current San Francisco and a future London. I loved it.
Earlier this week the UK Government brought forward the deadline for a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2040 to 2030. This is a jolly good thing.
The resulting media coverage has mainly been about whether or not it’s possible. My recent experience makes me think it is. We switched from a plug-in hybrid (Audi e-tron) to a full electric (Tesla Model 3) about three months ago. We don’t have a charging point at home for complicated reasons (the freehold of our building is currently being sold) but it’s been very easy to keep it charged up via local public charging points (often free) and the brilliant Tesla superchargers for long distance trips.
I will also say that full electric is a better experience than a hybrid. I’m no Elon Musk fanboy but Tesla are way ahead of their legacy auto sector rivals. The whole experience and business model is just better thought out than any car I’ve had previously. I’m not sure the difference can justify the market cap without them selling many millions more cars but I pity the short-sellers on that one.
It’s also made me think that the transition to zero carbon transport is going to be a lot faster than people currently imagine. When people try this generation of electric cars, they won’t go back. The uptake will also drive a huge amount of change in the wider energy system. With millions of batteries around, flexibility in the grid becomes a much greater possibility and renewables become even cheaper.
As a side note, I also think the market for electrified classics is going to grow quickly as the price of components comes down. It’s going to be much cheaper and easier to maintain an old car once you rip out the internal combustion engine and associated gubbins and replace them with the simplicity of batteries and a motor. Just check out this video on Fully Charged of a converted Ferrari.
I really enjoyed Underland by Robert Macfarlane. It’s an account of his journeys to places that could be thought of as underworlds – entrances to hell – or at least places hidden from human eyes. Macfarlane is a naturalist and environmentalist. He’s also not afraid of caving or climbing which helps. But he’s also one of my favourite writers – I love his tone and turn of phrase.
The book starts in a mine in North Yorkshire where in one direction the tunnel heads under the Yorkshire Moors but in the other, it disappears underneath the North Sea.
One of the most interesting chapters for me is set a few miles from our home – in Epping Forest. It explores an underground world that isn’t as inaccessible as caves on the Norwegian coast but is nonetheless hidden from most of us – the underfloor of the forest. It turns out that scientists are now starting to realise that trees are societies too. They are able to communicate and transfer water and nutrients to one another underground over large distances. Roots are amazing things.
He also visits caves that have been scarred by war as well as caves that have hidden burial sites and art for millennia. Glaciers that are deep under the ocean and hold ice that is hundreds of thousands of years old. Caves in Somerset that were settlements well before Stonehenge was built. And modern caves that are being built to hide some of the most dangerous things we’ve been responsible for – particularly nuclear waste.
He mentions a project to warn future (potentially non-human) generations about sites that hide deadly nuclear waste. Some people think that generating stories and myths about the sites might be better than any sign or warning ‘sculpture’ you could create. His guide tells him the workmen on the project joked when they first started digging they’d find the nuclear waste of some previous civilisation that we had no idea ever existed.
This was my first book by Robert Macfarlane and I loved it – I’ve read several others since.
Rewilding has been in the news this week with the UK government’s commitment to protect 30% of the country to increase biodiversity. Wilding is a fantastic place to start for people wanting to understand the theory and practice of helping nature thrive.
Back in the 1980s, Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell inherited a large farm and house in Sussex. They carried on working the farm until the late 1990s but it was becoming increasingly hard. The land was marginal – it was only really half meant for agriculture. It had thick clay and was pretty hilly and part of the land around the house was protected because of its ‘look’ as parkland, which indeed it had been for generations.
The thing that got them thinking though was a visit from a specialist to look at their oak trees. He told them the oaks were suffering. The land near them was being ploughed too often and he started to explain how they were part of a much wider ecosystem that was being disrupted by the agriculture on the farm. They started to think about what the land had been like before modern agriculture and realised that actually the ‘farm’ had only been that way since the second world war when Charlie’s grandfather had ploughed it up to produce food for the war effort. Before that as they delved into the history books, much of it had been scrubland or small fields. They also discovered accounts of much wider range of species on the land than was present in the 1990s.
As they started to research how they could attempt to return some of these species they came across a project in the Netherlands that was started in the 1970s. It wasn’t ‘rewilding’ as such because the land was newly reclaimed from the sea but the group had managed to create incredible biodiversity just a half hour drive from Amsterdam airport. The secret was understanding the role of large browsing animals in moving the earth and vegetation in order to get symbiosis between different species to start. If you just ‘left’ land it would gradually revert to full canopy woodland. You need large animals to keep some of the saplings in check in order to have grasslands and meadows and all the other types of ecosystem that biodiversity needs.
Back at Knepp, they sold all the farm machinery and animals and brought in a few long horn cattle and ponies and tamworth pigs and waited to see what would happen. Over the following 15 years (20 now I guess) they had huge outbloomings of all kinds of plants and insects and birds. It’s now one of the most biodiverse places in the UK and they’re justifiably proud of their ‘lack of work’. It’s perhaps a blueprint for how part of the UK should be managed in the future.
I’ve written here before about how I think biodiversity and rewilding could be a big movement in the future (and tech for good could play a part). Isabella Tree’s book is both a fantastic read and a wonderful contribution of lessons learned as that movement gathers pace.
I really enjoyed Morgan Housel’s new book The Psychology of Money. I’ve read his articles and blog posts for several years and the book is a rounded summary of his approach.
His starting point is that money is a very odd thing. While we try to make it ‘scientific’ in the investment world and in mainstream economics, it’s really much more complex than any one theory or model can cope with. There’s a lot of Daniel Kahneman’s influence in the book as well as nuggets from the most prominent proponents of value investing.
For me the best chapter is “When You’ll Believe Anything” about the hold that stories have on the way we think about economic decisions.
“When we think about the growth of economies, businesses, investments and careers, we tend to think about tangible things – how much stuff do we have and what are we capable of? But stories are, by far, the most powerful force in the economy. They are the fuel that can let the tangible parts of the economy work and the brake that holds our capabilities back.”
I’d like to see him go more into the psychology of impact investing – how does the social or environmental impact of the money you invest make a difference to decision making. He’s very well positioned to do that as his day job these days is with Collaborative Fund.
I think it does make a difference. My experience is that impact investors tend to be more long term and less shaken by short term shocks. There’s less gambling in the impact investment world and I think that’s partly to do with the aims of the investors.
Every now and then a book comes along at just the right time. Impact by Sir Ronald Cohen is one of those books. It was written before Covid (there’s an inserted page at the beginning that references as much) but everything that has happened in 2020 just goes to strengthen the argument.
Ronnie starts by telling a little of the history of impact investing – how it had many beginnings but really gathered momentum after the term was coined at a meeting in 2008. But part of the story is also about ‘social investing’ – a term that goes back to the 90s – and ‘ESG investing’ which really started back in the 80s with activist investors attempting to get funds to divest from stocks that they felt were harmful to the planet or whose ethics they disagreed with. Sir Ronnie has been involved in many aspects of this history from helping to create the first social impact bond to chairing government task forces on the topic and as founding chair of Big Society Capital. He’s certainly made his mark on many of the important building blocks of the impact investing world.
But I think it’s the logic and argument of the book that really resonates right now. Lots of people feel that our current form of capitalism is destroying itself and that the relationship between government, finance and social and environmental progress needs to change.
For investors the idea of measuring returns is obvious. From ancient times, the idea of lending or investing capital in order to gain a return has been one of the foundations of our economic system. Businesses raise money, put it to work, and then pay back their investors with a return.
In the 20th century, the concept of risk became much better understood – how can we measure the risk to the return that is being promised by taking into account volatility, political issues and so on. The financial services industry got better and better at measuring the risks of various types of investment so helping them to make better decisions.
In the 21st century, Cohen argues, impact will be added to the equation. All investment decisions will take into account return, risk and impact. He argues that technology has enabled us to calculate and assess all of these much more accurately and impact is in many ways easier to measure than risk.
I was lucky enough to interview Ronnie a couple of weeks ago for our Practical Optimist newsletter. You can see that interview below.
The portfolio achieved significant financial growth and scale of impact. Combined, our portfolio companies saw a 54% increase in revenues to £29.5m, and doubled their number of users to 12m.
We made our highest number of follow-on investments in 2019 and supported our ventures in raising finance from both impact-focused and traditional firms. BGV ventures raised a further £16 million in 2019, bringing the total amount of additional investment raised by our portfolio to over £80m.
In our team, 68.8% of employees identify as female (more than double the London VC industry average) and 31.3% of our team are from ethnic minority backgrounds.
BGV companies also exceed the UK tech sector average with regards to gender diversity. 46.5% of portfolio company employees identify as female, compared to the industry average of 19%.
This year we aligned our impact methodology and portfolio reporting with the Impact Management Project (IMP), placing us in C6 of the Impact Management Matrix. 49% of our portfolio actively assess potential unintended consequences arising from their products, and 75% of those have developed ways to mitigate them.
The report is based on data up to 31st December 2019 which seems like a long time ago now. But while things have changed radically because of coronavirus, they also haven’t changed at all. The social and environmental problems we’ve been trying to address are if anything more important and more evident. The megatrends that BGV is based on still stand:
More and more talented people will want to build products, services and companies to solve important social and environmental challenges.
More and more investors will want to put their money to work in line with their values.