Wall Street vs The Social Network — and some problems that really need solving

During a recent trip to New York and San Francisco, a few people said they thought that the movie The Social Network was having an effect on the number of people who wanted to start a startup. Now, on the face of it, The Social Network isn’t a positive film. It’s mainly set in the offices of law firms as people sue each other over promises not kept. Â But there is something intoxicating about the story and I don’t think you can help coming out of the cinema thinking “that looks more exciting than working for a bank”.

When I saw the film last year I wondered whether it might be Wall Street for a new generation. Oliver Stone’s film was meant to be a cutting satire of Wall Street’s excesses (reading Roger Ebert’s original 1987 review is quite enlightening), but in a strange way it actually inspired the next generation of people working in finance who then arguably caused our current financial crisis.

If The Social Network does start a trend of people starting startups just for the sake of starting startups, what we have on our hands is a bubble. As Esther Dyson says, there’s probably enough innovation in the world, it’s putting it to good use that we’re missing. Maybe it’s a long shot but I hope the movie attracts people for the right reasons so if you’re thinking about starting a startup, here’s a list of problems you could have a go at solving. It’s by no means complete, but just some things that I think really need great people. And if you want to work on any of them, we’d love to have you apply to the next Social Innovation Camp in Edinburgh in June or Bethnal Green Ventures in the Autumn.

The new old -Â Whether you think it’s a demographic time bomb or see it as more of an opportunity, there’s little doubt we need to reinvent the way we care for our elders. Again this will need new models of finance and organisation. How can we get beyond the idea of dwindling pensions and depressing care homes? See this documentary by Gerry Robinson if you want more on the problem.

Keeping the lights on -Â If we’re going to tackle climate change, we need new products and services that will help people reduce their energy use by a factor of 10 not just by a few per cent. And we need new ways of getting zero-carbon energy generation to be adopted. How would you do that?

Unleashing underused assets and products — One of the main problems of twentieth century consumerism was that we all had to have one of everything. It made sense for companies to try and sell us new things all the time. In a resource constrained century, that no longer makes sense. Could you build something that helps co-ordinate sharing, lending and swapping of real world durable goods and property?

Hacking education — Education hasn’t changed in structure since the 19th Century but the world has. There’s massive  frustration with the system in the developed world and a crying need for brand new approaches in the developing world. Could you build new ways to organise, finance and expand education?

Prevention engines — We all know prevention is better than cure, yet almost all of us wait until it’s too late before we do anything about it. The problem is that public services generally only know about people when it’s too late. Could you build services that help get to people before they know they need help?

Access to real food — Much like consumer goods, the industrial age made cheap food possible. That was great, but also led to problems. Now we have different needs for a food system. We’re interested in ideas that can make a healthy, sustainable food system just as efficient as the over-processed, wasteful system we have now.

Insuring the uninsurable — What about applying the principles of peer-to-peer lending models to insurance? It’s a massive issue for many people if they’re already close to the edge and something goes wrong.

Disaster technology — When everything goes wrong, technology can save lives. Knowing where people are and being able to get the things they need to them as quickly as possible is vital. If we can do it for ecommerce, we can do it for saving lives. But we need more tools and services.

Loneliness — Partly linked to issues of ageing above, but actually a much wider concern is loneliness. Changes in the way our towns and cities are organised and the way we live our lives in terms of family structures and work have led to a rise in mental health problems — often linked to the number and quality of social relationships people have. Technology is just as good at helping people meet people in the real world as it is at helping them meet online. How could you use technology to help build real world communities?

Find out more about Social Innovation Camp and Bethnal Green Ventures.

What do investors get from accelerator programs?

The next question we’re looking at as we explore the world of accelerator programs is why investors get involved. News a couple of months ago that Yuri Milner and SV Angel plan to offer every Y-Combinator team a $150,000 convertible note put this all in headlines, but investor motivations aren’t always straightforward. In fact there are a range of investors who get involved for a range of different reasons.

Angel investors

Some angels invest directly into accelerator programs, some invest in the startups during or at the end of the accelerator program, others simply participate in events and mentoring. You might think that angel investors are a completely hard headed bunch and will only invest because of the return they might get but that’s certainly not universally the case.

The main reason for getting involved is that they get to make more informed decisions about companies to invest in at the end of the program. After three months of intensely working on a startup, a number of things are much clearer. Does the team work well together under pressure? Is there a product market fit? Can they pitch well? As an angel investor, it’s actually quite hard to get a really good level of information from very early stage companies but accelerators make it much easier.

We also heard a lot of stories from angels that one reason they got involved was not to invest and get a return directly but because they could see benefit in the long term of improving the local ecosystem for startups (even if that would take a decade or more). This was less of a reason for programs in the Bay Area but in New York and London, was often cited as a motivation.

Another reason people mentioned was that it’s good fun. There’s a buzz associated with getting involved with early stage companies that is absent from other roles they might take on in larger firms or other types of investing. They seem to get involved because they find it interesting and enjoyable rather than relying on any direct return.

Institutional investors

The people with bigger pockets in the world of high tech investing are the venture capital firms. In the UK they have backed Seedcamp and in the US, Y-Combinator is backed by investment by Sequoia, perhaps the most successful of the Silicon Valley venture capital firms.

One problem that accelerators solve for VCs is that they create new deal-flow. A number of people have said that this was the compelling reason for supporting Seedcamp in London in the early days — that there simply weren’t enough young founders and companies having any contact with the world of investment. The venture capital community has an interest in there being a far greater number of good companies. If they can attract talented people to think about setting up startups rather than going to work for large organisations that’s good news for the whole sector.


There is a wider issue which came out from some of our interviewees that accelerators are one example of a profound shift in the venture capital industry as power shifts away from venture capital firms and towards founders and angel investors. Dave McClure is one believer. But I’ll come back to that in another post.

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