How to start a social startup: co-founders

Choosing who to work with is the most important decision in startup life. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s almost impossible to start something up on your own and so it really is worth spending time finding great people to work with very early on.

There will be no formal interviews, CV’s won’t be much use and head hunters are a no go. So if you don’t know who you want to work with straight away you should be asking friends to put you in touch with people who they think it’s worth you meeting to talk through the idea. You’ll know when somebody is keen from the first or second meeting but then you need to work with them for a while before you make a decision. ‘Hire slowly’ applies to finding co-founders too.

Things to look for in a co-founder

The shorthand for what you’re looking for in a co-founder is a startup mindset. It doesn’t mean that the person has worked in a startup before necessarily — it’s a state of mind that I’d say includes the following:

  • They have to be smart and get things done. One or the other won’t work — you need both.
  • They should have a cutthroat collaborative attitude — You’re looking for people who are brilliant at working with others, collaboration and communication should be their natural working state.
  • They should have a habit of bloody-mindedness — this might sound like the opposite of the above but what I really mean is tenacity in the face of adversity. At some stage things will go wrong and you don’t want them to lose interest.

Two other things I think you should look for in choosing a founding team:

  • People who are different to you — given the choice between two people to work with, often your instinct is to work with the person who is most like you. Over time that can make things difficult, especially as you all have to spread into learning new skills that are needed at different stages of startup.
  • Having said that, I would look for people who have a similar outlook on how other people (whether they’re investors, employees or office cleaners) should be treated. Sometimes this is known as the No Asshole Rule.

Some things you need to talk about

Once you have a co-founding team there are a series of things you need to talk about. Often it is just a case of knowing what people think. It’s not a question of making decisions there and then, just understanding where you’re all coming from and what you are trying to get out of the experience of starting a new venture.

  • Shares and ownership — people have very different views about shares and what they’re worth. You need to know how people think about the value of their founding stake.
  • Salaries — I’ve always tried to be open about what people get paid and keep it very even. You need to be honest with each other about your overall financial position and even your personal finances. Unless you’re a runaway overnight success there are going to be moments where money is very tricky and it’s much easier to prevent problems if you know where people stand.
  • Job titles and who does what — I hate job titles and avoided us deciding on them for a long time. There is a real problem with taking job titles and descriptions from bigger organisations as Steve Blank puts it here. I think my advice would be to avoid individual areas of responsibility for things that haven’t happened yet and develop a much more project and task orientated system of managing your time. There is probably one area where this isn’t true because you really need to have your head into it: investor relations. So you need a CEO.
  • Credit and profile — If you’re doing something interesting, you will get opportunities to get media coverage and profile and you need to decide how to deal with that because it can build up as a source of resentment. I guess this really comes down to being honest with each other about why you’re involved. It varies a lot more than I thought.
  • Timekeeping — there’s a line about the early days of Amazon in The Nudist on the Late Shift (which is a superb book about startup life) that says people came in about midday and left in the small hours and things were good. But when it comes to working in a tiny team which is what happens in the really early stages, I think you do need to keep regular hours — or at least predictable hours — because the best way of moving forward is to talk to one another and if you’re out of sync, you can lose valuable time.

All of those can be difficult conversations, but they’re definitely easier early on.

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Can you fly a jumbo jet upside down?

It just struck me how odd it is to be able to fly planes upside down so I went and had a look at how it’s actually done and came across this lovely story and accompanying video about Boeing test pilot Tex Johnston who first rolled a jumbo jet when testing the 707.

The plane lands at Boeing field and Tex gets out and starts to walk away from the plane. A Boeing official runs over to Tex and tells him Mr. Allen wants to see him now. Mr. Allen is the president of Boeing. So Tex heads off across the street to the Boeing Exec offices and into Mr. Allens office.

Tex walks in. Mr Allen from behind his desk says, “How are you Tex? How’s the family”?

Tex answers the boss.

Mr Allen then says, “I hear you rolled the plane today, Tex”.

Tex says quietly, “Yes sir I did”.

Mr Allen answers, “Don’t do it again. Bye Tex. Say hello to the wife.”

My Cognitive Circus

I’ve just finished reading Clay Shirky’s excellent book Cognitive Surplus. It took me a while, not because Clay is a difficult writer to read (he’s not), but because I’ve found myself reading books less and less. In my mind, I haven’t had time to read but the truth is probably more that I’ve been distracted from reading by many of the technologies that Clay writes about in the book.

In the end I finished the book on a plane to Barcelona with enforced new media silence and since I didn’t want to rack up an extortionate roaming bill on my iphone while I was away, I also found myself sitting in a lovely outdoor cafe reading Steven Johnson’s wonderful new book Where Good Ideas Come From.

This set me thinking about my daily relationship with the cognitive circus of twitter, email, foursquare and facebook. I realised that I have become addicted to the tiny dopamine hits of seeing something new on my iphone or computer in the office or at home. There’s something in my character that likes to know what’s going on which all these things tap into and which I really don’t like.

I sometimes catch myself browsing through twitter and thinking I really should be doing something more productive and close the application, only to find myself absent mindedly opening it again a few minutes later wondering what new messages have appeared.

The editor of Miller McCune John Mecklin puts it well in this piece with the lovely title of The Gadget in the Gray Flannel Suit:

“The gadget-driven opportunity to interact, from almost anywhere, with an ever-expanding universe of people seemed entrancing initially… After a time, though, the gadget’s call — check your e-mail; someone just commented on your Facebook post! — became less a joy and more an irritant that I sometimes purposely avoided.”

I’m certainly at that stage now although it’s actually something I’ve battled with for many years on and off. One of our investors Tim Jackson gave me a copy of Never Check Email in the Morning — I think as a subtle hint about my slightly erratic productivity — and although the book is terrible there is something in the idea of not letting yourself settle into a responsive mode straight away each day.

None of this is a criticism of the platforms themselves. Although they are designed to suck you in and hold your attention, I think it’s the responsibility of the people who use them to find ways of making them manageable. Jamais Cascio is right when he says:

“the technology-induced ADD that’s associated with this new world may be a short-term problem. The trouble isn’t that we have too much information at our fingertips, but that our tools for managing it are still in their infancy.”

I’m really going to focus on getting the right balance over the next few months. If I find ways to get it right I’ll share them around.
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How to start a social startup: prototyping

When you’ve defined your problem, have a short description of your solution and you’ve started getting positive feedback from real people, it can be helpful to build a prototype of how your solution might work.

The key thing here is that you’re not yet building the technology you will finally use. You’re using things that are cheaper and quicker so that you can get feedback. As with the initial interviews and questionnaires, you’re looking for patterns but also aware of anything that sounds strange when you first hear it — sometimes those things can tell you a lot.

These are the tools I’ve tried and would recommend:

Draw it on paper

One of the best ways to show the service to people is to have cards with the stages they would go through to use the service and then see how they react. It really doesn’t need to be complex at all — just sheets of normal paper or card that you can show them in order.

Get people together

We did two things to test the original idea for School of Everything by getting the people who we thought would use the website in a room together, although I don’t think we realised we were prototyping at the time. It helps get over all the asynchronous and distance stuff that your service will help people get over eventually.

The first was what we called Free Schools, not the Michael Gove ones, but evening events where we’d get a bunch of people (usually about 20) together and put up a board with ‘What would you like to teach’ on one side and ‘What would you like to learn’ on the other. Basically they would get conversations going and quite often people would meet up afterwards to learn from one another.

The other was prompted by Russell Davies who asked us to do ‘something fun’ in the lobby at Interesting in 2008. We built an Interesting Machine which was really just a postbox that people could put what they wanted to learn or teach into. We got several hundred cards and sorting through them showed us a lot. We didn’t know quite what to do with them though. Thinking back, what we should have done is then set up groups for all the people who were interested in similar topics.


We’re really lucky at School of Everything because we have Sangeet who can mock things up in photoshop very quickly. We often turn them into click through presentations and then show them to people to get immediate feedback. It very quickly shows you if there is any confusion about what the service does. Wireframes have a similar effect and there are lots of tools out there for putting them together pretty quickly, even if you’re completely non-technical. Mockingbird is a very good one.

Be the machine

The next technique is possibly the closest you can get to building something that might work. If you’ve started to realise what the different bits of your service are you can generally mimic them yourself using Google Docs, email and a mobile phone. This is what we’ve been doing over the summer with School of Everything Groups as members of Bethnal Green Cookery Club will testify. Of course you can only do it for a small number of people but it’s amazing what you learn.

So that’s it. A few techniques for non-coders to get a better idea about whether the problem you’re trying to solve is real and whether the solution you’re proposing is something people might use. At this stage, you still don’t have a website or a business plan but you have a lot more information about whether your idea is a goer.

How to start a social startup: Understanding the problem

We’ve just started helping the first cohort of Bethnal Green Ventures projects and I’m using it as an excuse to write down some of the things I’ve learned about social startups over the past couple of years.

It starts with a hunch

You start the process of developing a startup with hunches about both the problem you’re trying to solve and the solution you’re going to build. In my experience these are always sparked by a story, which for School of Everything Mark I came from John Markoff’s book What the Dormouse Said,  but for other people it’s something that a friend says or something they go through themselves. The story of the Free U gave me the idea for a solution and I could quickly see the problem that it solved — or at least I thought I could.

My mistake was that this wasn’t a problem that individual people had — it was systemic. I thought the problem we were trying to fix was how rigid and out-of-date the organisation of the education system is and that is a problem, it’s just not one that a website can solve on its own. A website solves the problems of an individual person, but it then takes lots of people using the website to change the way something is organised systemically. And generally people won’t do that unless you build something that solves their individual problem.

So I think if you’re building a social start-up, the problem you’re trying to solve has two parts:

  1. an individual person’s problem that you can build some technology to help solve.
  2. a social problem that will be solved if lots of people use your solution to 1.

You can think of either one first — the important thing is that you need both.

Get out of the office

When you have these written down and your hunch about a solution, you need to get out and test them. We’ve been doing this incessantly over the summer for School of Everything Mark II. What’s important is to get accurate information. I like the analogy of this being like the scientific method: you have a hypothesis that you then test by collecting real data.

You need to think who might have the problem that you’re trying to solve. Over the summer we recruited people by asking for volunteers through Facebook and Twitter and just following our own social networks two or three degrees to get to different groups. These were as diverse as over 55s in Manchester through to young mums in London.

We found the two best tools for gathering information are Surveymonkey and shoeleather. Surveymonkey gives you some numbers but you do have to be careful in the way you design questions and interpret responses. We set the goal of getting over a hundred responses and looked for answers to be chosen by over 80% of respondents for us to think it was strong enough finding.

We also did lots of face to face interviews by getting out of the office. These give you the insights you need to know how what you’re proposing will fit into people’s lives. You also get more accurately from these what people might be willing to pay. It’s much easier to tell whether people are serious face-to-face.

Minimum Viable Product

We also showed people what the Lean Startup crowd call a Minimum Viable Product spec. This is important because you need to be confident that you can build it. As Steve Blank says, “Any idiot can get outside the building and ask customers what they want, compile a feature list and hand it to engineering.” So as we went around asking people if anything we were reducing the number of features rather than getting more ideas about what it should include.

Once you’ve done this for a while, the answers become quite clear as to whether what you think you’re solving is a real problem and whether there are people out there who’d be willing to pay for what you’re proposing.

By the end of this process you should have:

  • A couple of sentences that explain the individual person’s problem you’re going to solve and a list of the people who you’ve met who have that problem.
  • A couple of sentences explaining your solution and a slighty longer minimum viable product specification (probably no more than ten features).
  • A couple of paragraphs showing that you understand the broader social problem it will solve if it all goes to plan.

Note you don’t have any technology yet, or a business plan or a company or full team or bank account. You can do all the above and have a pretty good idea about whether something is worth building or not but only have spent a very small amount of money.

Building the product vs building the company

Paul Graham is a bit of a hero of mine as I think he is for many people who have had a go at creating a start-up. Not necessarily for his track record (which is also brilliant) but for his ability to put his finger on what’s important, particularly in the essays on his site:

I’d noticed startups got way less done when they started raising money, but it was not till we ourselves raised money that I understood why. The problem is not the actual time it takes to meet with investors. The problem is that once you start raising money, raising money becomes the top idea in your mind. That becomes what you think about when you take a shower in the morning. And that means other questions aren’t.

(Rest of the article is here.)

At the moment we’re really focussing on building what in the start-up world is called the ‘product’ as we design a new service to help people organise small groups to learn from one another. I have to say I’m really enjoying it. It’s entirely what I’m thinking about in the shower rather than worrying about all the permutations of investment or legal issues.

However, there is a bit of a knack to minimising the amount of time I spent on managing the company. Some of that came with experience — the first time I had to do an annual return for example, I worried about it quite a bit, but the next time it was much less of a distraction. Other tricks are about choosing the right tools — Things has helped me not to have to worry about remembering key dates for company admin and the simple spreadsheet I use for managing cashflow is now very easy to use. There’s also choosing the right people to take boring problems away — having the right accountants and lawyers definitely helps.

I guess that’s why we’re running Accountancy Club — to help people spend less time worrying in the shower so they can think about building exciting things instead.

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We’re just getting to the interesting bit

It struck me this morning how my experience of London has changed in the last few years. I swiped my Oyster card to get on a bus to go along to a meeting of School of Everything Unplugged (organised using Meetup), then hopped on a TfL bike to get back to the office. I’m about to pop out for my weekly Good Gym run and then I’m going out for the evening using a Streetcar. Now none of those activities is new in itself but the way they’re organised using technology is.

Fred Wilson has a neat little blog post today called Retooling Stale Businesses which is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. While the car was a pretty smart and lucrative invention on its own, its biggest impact was that it led to suburbia, fast food, and many other completely new social systems — many of them things we now see as bad. But I couldn’t help feeling a little bit emotional watching the Top Gear piece about the decline of British sports car manufacturers, especially the eerily quiet Jenson and TVR factories. But of course the Lotus factory (the other place Clarkson and chums visited) is actually turning out the Tesla Roadster.

There are no shortage of new ideas in the car world, many of them suggesting the model of organisation will change radically. I’d be surprised if car ownership was anywhere near as common as now by 2020. The riversimple guys are doing some of that. Liftshare and Streetcar too. Maybe Better Place will pull some of it off too. And the interesting thing about all those is that they are only possible because of the internet.

For me we’re getting to the most exciting phase of the internet’s development, when it gets beyond novelty and into reorganising society at large. The need to help shape that reorganisation for social benefit is why we’re starting Bethnal Green Ventures to offer support to projects that set out to use the internet and mobile for social good. It’s early days but you can find out more here.

Five things that have lasted longer than I thought they would

Hanging out at Green Thing HQ with Katee earlier this week reminded me that I’ve been thinking for a while about the items I own that have lasted longer than I thought they would. Buying new stuff — and manufacturers designing in obsolescence — has to be one of the most damaging aspects of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. So here goes:

Cambridge Audio Amplifier — bought when my student loan arrived I seem to remember from Richer Sounds in Nottingham in 1996.

JPW Minimonitor speakers — little beauties bought with the amp above. The Technics CD player hasn’t made it but the amp, speakers and cables are still going strong.

Raleigh Kalahari bike — bough when I was 14 I think so now 18 years old. Has had new brakes, a new saddle, new wheels and several sets of tyres. Still going strong though.

Balzano Carmencita stove top espresso — I’ve probably used this 3 or four times a week for 9 years. I bought it from Tinderbox in London fairly shortly after it opened (I think in 2001). I haven’t seen one anywhere else and can’t really find any trace of them online.

Apple Powerbook G4 — Can’t quite remember where I bought this but I think it was in 2004. I did buy a new battery for it a few years ago from eBay but it’s held up remarkably well. I don’t use it as a workhorse anymore — it now really just sits at home and runs Spotify.

I’ve joined the Good Gym

I’m useless at going to the gym. I’ve been a member of various schemes over the years — most recently I was spending about £40 a month and going, well, erm, let’s just say not very often. So I’ve stopped the direct debit and joined the Good Gym instead.

Back in December 2008 we picked Ivo Gormley’s idea for Social Innovation Camp — here’s his original application. Over the course of the weekend a brilliant team developed the idea and in the final pitching session the team won. Since then Ivo and the team have got the project off the ground and now I’ve moved to Tower Hamlets I can be part of it.

So after a CRB check, The Good Gym has matched me up with Veronica who I’ll be visiting once a week to deliver some fruit and have a bit of a chat. And as I met with Veronica for the first time this evening the project was featured on BBC London News which was a nice coincidence.

You can find out more about the project here. If you’d like to join or can help grow the project to other areas, do get in touch.

Things I’ve learned about Bethnal Green

I’ve been living in Bethnal Green for four months now and have to say it keeps growing on me as a neighbourhood. I worked here for a couple of years before moving here so some of these are old favourites but here are some things I’ve learned:

The name Bethnal Green derives from the Anglo-Saxon for ‘happy corner’.

The London Fields Farmers Market on a Sunday morning is very good. The Roman Road market is great during the week.

Museum Gardens is an absolutely gem of a park. Tower Hamlets must spend a fortune on keeping it in good nick.

There are some fantastic bloggers in the area. I found this wonderful one today.

The best coffee shop is Taste of Bitter Love on Hackney Road, Hurwundeki and Climpson and Sons are runners up.

My favourite pub is the Camel — the Wandle beer is brilliant and I’m always a fan of places that only have one thing on the menu and do it well (in this case its perfect pie, mash, peas and gravy). The Dove and The Approach come joint second for me.

The gasometers go up and down much less in the Summer than the Winter.

The friendliest service in the area is found in E Pellicci on Bethnal Green Road. You can also find Dave Gorman in there from time to time.

There’s a tardis like shop on Bethnal Green Road selling hundreds of different type of tropical fish for aquariums.

The cafe in Hackney City Farm is one of the best places to eat during the daytime if you can stand being prodded by small children.

The Film Shop on Broadway Market is well worth joining. Great range and I think better value than Lovefilm and all that malarkey.

First Thursdays on Vyner Street are great for people watching.

Gourmet San is the best Chinese restaurant I’ve been to in London and it’s on Bethnal Green Road.

You can get sushi delivered — hadn’t even thought of it but Demaezushi do it very, very well. A million times better than anything the supermarkets offer.

Best fish and chips is a little walk but definitely Fish House in Lauriston.

The chef at Viajante used to work at El Bulli (I haven’t been yet to find out whether it’s any good).

Square Mile Coffee Roasters are based in the railway arches near Cambridge Heath station. Walking past when they’re roasting is a joy.