Application forms: the good, the bad and the ugly

This is part of a series for the Field Guide project looking at the best ways to support early-stage social ventures.

Every now and then I’ve found myself screaming at application forms. I think some organisations take pleasure from writing the most annoying, time consuming, fiddly, technologically difficult and infuriating applications known to humankind. Other forms have felt like a breeze and a fair representation of what I was trying to get across but what makes the difference?

If programmes to support social ventures are selective (I realise not all are), they almost always have some form of application process which will include a form of some kind — these days usually online. I’m wondering whether we can gather together some tips from founders and programmes to make these less of a pain in the proverbial for founders and more useful for the programmes concerned.


There are a number of services out there which take some of the pain out of putting together a good application form. Techstars have their platform (which actually provides standard questions) and then is used by a number of programmes (including BGV) as is AngelLists ‘incubator applier’. Many programmes seem to have built their own systems using Google Forms or other apps or specify what types of document need to be sent in. Let me know if you have any experience using these platforms and what you think are good or could be improved.

The right questions

The big difference between the new breed of accelerators and incubators and more old school early stage investors is that they get people to fill in a form rather than submit a business plan. This means they can compare directly. I’ve included some links to programmes I know have open applications at the moment — anything that stands out as interesting?

I’ve also posted the questions we used for the last BGV cohort although applications aren’t open at the moment.

It’s about time

One social entrepreneur I spoke to recently was bemoaning the sheer amount of time it took to fill in the forms and templates required by an organisation that supports social ventures - particularly after the first application. It was only because she had started and got so far that she was willing to carry on. “If I’d known there was this much bureaucracy I wouldn’t have bothered” she told me. What’s a reasonable amount of time for people to spend preparing the information for and filling in applications for programmes to support social ventures? I’m particularly interested in early stage ventures where there might be a prototype or early product but probably no revenues or paying customers.

Video killed the form?

A lot of applications now ask for a video introducing the team. We added this to the BGV application form at the last minute after I spoke to somebody who runs another programme who said they’d picked up some teams they wouldn’t have without video. Personally I don’t think it really helped in BGV applications but I’m interested whether founders like it as a way of getting across who you are and what you do.

Apply here

What really annoys you about application forms for startup programmes? Which ones would you point to as being really good and why? The other side of the story (how programmes do selection based on the information they get through forms) is coming soon.

March of the Makers

Earlier this week, I went along to hear Chris Anderson talk about his new book Makers: the new industrial revolution. He’s gone a long way along the Pro-Am path that Charlie and I wrote about back in 2004 since I last saw him. Alongside his role as editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, he’s now part-time CEO of a drone company with factories in California and Mexico. Just so we’re clear that he’s not selling military grade predators, these are small quadcopters that people can use to film themselves windsurfing or to do things like this. His interest started from his kids’ frustration with their dad crashing their radio controlled plane. He wondered whether you could make a hobbyist plane fly itself and set about making a drone using some arduino and basic sensors.

He found that he was becoming a maker and also found that he was not alone. As Paul Graham wrote this week, hardware is getting to the point of being as easy to prototype and develop as software has already become. The analogy that Chris uses is that 3D printing is somewhere between 1977 and 1984 in personal computing terms. Apple has been founded and hobbyists and pioneers are seeing what they can do with this newly democratised technology but we haven’t yet had the Macintosh — taking the computer to the masses.

The potential is pretty amazing but it feels like we don’t see much progress. There is no killer app for 3D printing yet and it’s easy to be cynical about whether there really will be a revolution in the way we manufacture the objects around us. At the event there was also quite a lot of debate about the doomsday scenario of drones taking decisions by themselves or being used by terrorists to wreak havoc. There’s also the potential in the near future for people to 3D print DNA and eventually new organisms — apparently something Craig Venter is working on. Eric Ries (who was interviewing Chris on stage) wondered whether the answer was for the people who are working in this field to embed Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics into the things they produce.

Photo some rights reserved by Creative Tools.
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Formula E

I’m pretty excited about the prospect of the FIA’s Formula E. I’m a closet Formula One fan but more for the engineering and strategy than the glamour and carbon dioxide emissions and I honestly don’t care about the noise. Formula One cars are loud but don’t sound ‘beautiful’ in the way that some road cars do.

Although teams will probably use cars made by a single manufacturer in the first year (the Formulec EF1 as pictured above), the key thing is to make it faster and more exciting than F1 as soon as possible which should be doable given the technical specs they’ve published. The key section is that there’s no restriction on the power of the motors or batteries to be used — the only restriction on the batteries are safety ones, they have to be approved in advance by the FIA and meet fire and crash standards. In principle you could strap the motor from an electric train to a chassis — that wouldn’t work very well but compared to the restrictions on engines and fuel in Formula One it’s an innovator’s paradise. The FIA has basically said “show us what you can do”. They’ll all have four wheels and be roughly the same size but apart from that, you can do four wheel drive, four wheel steering if you like, and plenty of things that are banned in F1 are allowed like traction control.

The other great thing is that they’ve said that tracks should be ‘city based’ — this is something that F1 struggles with because of the noise. They can basically only do it in Singapore and Monaco where the Governments are rather more, erm, decisive than other places. But imagine a Formula E race in Rio de Janeiro (they’ve already signed up) or London or San Francisco. Bernie should definitely let Formula E race the same weekend as Monaco on the same track to show people that they can go faster than an F1 car.

There are huge barriers to overcome, not least how to make it good on TV but I think it could be a very good thing for the future of electric mobility which is the only way I can see to end our addiction to oil in the near future.

Image:Â Forumlec
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Social Incubation: A Field Guide

I’ve just started work on a project with Nesta to share some of the lessons we’ve learned through Bethnal Green Ventures about how to incubate and accelerate social ventures. We’re also hoping to include lots of insights from our friends at other programmes and organisations that support early stage social ventures.

It’s going to result in a short book to be published early next year which is currently code-named Social Incubation: A Field Guide. The ‘field guide’ metaphor partly comes from people talking about the early-stage ‘ecosystem’ and the idea is that you should be able to use it to look at organisations that support social ventures and understand better what they are and what they do. Don’t worry, we’ll come up with a better name for it as we go along.

In some ways it’s a follow up to The Startup Factories report I wrote with Kirsten Bound which a lot of people have said they found useful for understanding what was going on with startup accelerators. But this time we’re just focusing on support for social ventures and we’re digging deeper into the techniques used rather than just what the organisations do. The idea is that it will get into the nitty gritty of how each bit works. For example what are the best ways of linking ventures up with mentors? That was a new thing for us in this cohort of BGV and I’m not sure we got it absolutely right but we learned a lot as we went along. What other new approaches are people experimenting with in how to get the best out of teams and really stretch their potential? What’s working really well?

Hopefully the guide will be useful to startups when choosing which programmes to apply for and also to people setting up new programmes as well as investors and policy makers. I’ve been contacted by five people in the last week who are thinking of setting up social accelerator programmes asking for advice, which gives you some idea of the growth rate in this field.

In terms of who to talk to, I’m starting with this Quora list of social venture accelerators and incubators. If you know of others, please do either add them to the Quora list or pop them in the comments below. They can be anywhere in the world and rather than choosing them by defining how they do it, we’ve defined it based on the type and stage of the ventures they support. So we’re looking for organisations that support:

  • Ventures trying to solve a social or environmental problem in a scalable and financially sustainable way
  • Ventures with a small team (less than 5 people)
  • That are pre or very early revenue (less than $10,000 per month)
  • And have a prototype or beta product or service

I think this is too important for us to keep what we’ve learned to ourselves and it’s in all our interests that social ventures are supported well. So if you’re involved in a programme and you’d like to share what you’ve learned too, please do get in touch.
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Boundless energy

I popped into a university fair about energy technologies in Berkeley yesterday and was struck by just how many brilliant ideas and how much interest there was from students in it as a sector. Just a few of the things I didn’t really know about before last night were:

  • High altitude wind turbines — as you walked in you could help but notice a Makani carbon fibre wing with turbines on it that acts as a kite, flying 250 metres up and generating electricity. The reason is simple — there’s a lot more wind at 250 metres up than there is at ground level. The kite can land itself if the wind drops or gets too strong.
  • Energy storage devices — there were quite a few ways of turning electricity into stored capacity without using chemical batteries. My favourite version of this is actually one I’ve seen in the UK where electricity is used to liquify air and then the air is allowed to re-gasify when you need it to drive a turbine.
  • Solar concentrator technologies — the big solar arrays apparently use molten salt but there was a company that had developed another material that is more efficient and less corrosive. There were also a number of systems using lenses and mirrors to concentrate the sun on photovoltaics or solar water heaters.
  • Energy reclaim devices — there seem to be lots of technologies around now for reclaiming waste energy, either from heat or vibrations. Very interesting.

And then there were tens of different ways of making energy use more efficient. I’ve written before that I think efficiency is probably the best investment at the moment (hence our investments in Gnergy and Homely for BGV) but it was great to see so many inventions that are trying to get generation and storage right as well.

Image: Makani

He really does look like Tom Hanks

As a follow on to my post about Steven Johnson’s book, Clay Shirky’s TED talk is well worth a watch. He talks about the clash that’s going on between hierarchy and networks in the world of government and policy and points to the growth of methods of collaboration like Github in open source as ways that politics and law making might develop in the future. It’s a talk full of insight but also full of realism that this isn’t going to happen overnight.

[Strange aside: Git was apparently named by Linus Torvalds after himself (he’d already used his real first name to name Linux so used the other name people called him)].

I also like Clay’s description of what he studies — how technology affects the way people have arguments. New forms of politics probably aren’t going to be high brow, philosophical ones. Just check out the debate in the comment thread on the TED site which isn’t about the content of the talk but about whether Clay looks like Tom Hanks or not (he does). Quite often what happens is that an online debate descends into mudslinging and personal attack and the useful people just go elsewhere. My feeling is that new political models will be innovations in process that help people get over the mudslinging phase and have better (more productive) arguments.
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A series of tubes

It’s pretty easy to forget that the internet is actually a thing. With phrases like ‘the cloud’ and virtual this and cyber that, you can forget that it’s a set of data centres, wires, fibres, routers and switches that exist very much in the real world.

I went along to a session about net neutrality last night which was a slightly terrifying glimpse of american corporate lobbying. The talk was given by a telecoms regulator who had just had their job effectively made useless by a clever piece of lobbying by the telecoms companies. The California legislature passed SB1161, authored by state Sen. Alex Padilla which removes the ability of the regulator to do anything that affects internet providers, including monitoring their standards of service or checking that their service is robust.

The reason the telcos got this passed wasn’t that they were afraid of the Government ‘regulating the internet’, it was so that they can charge differentially for different types of content and not have the regulator kick up a fuss. The telcos want what they call a two-sided market so they can charge providers as well as people who want the content. One reason is so that they can charge people like Skype and Google for putting calls over their networks and stay competitive themselves. The other is that streaming video is taking away the market for cable television.

I didn’t know this but the UK is actually held up as a very good regulatory regime for internet providers and we have some of the cheapest and most competitive services in the world. America is already one of the slowest and most expensive places to connect to the internet in the world. From what I heard last night, it’s only going to get worse if the big telco lobbyists get their way.


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Future Perfect — the case for peer progressivism

I’ve never been quite sure which political box I fit into. When I was younger I tried being a member of various political parties but nothing was quite right even though I was interested in political issues. As time went on I came to realise that it was partly the way that political parties were structured that was the problem. They were too slow and top-down and debates about policy didn’t resonate with me — they seemed abstracted from any evidence or real idea about what the future should be like.

As I got a bit older I realised there were plenty of other people who thought in a similar way to me and who had become disillusioned with the main parties. We took our inspiration from self-organisation rather than old political labels. We were relentlessly practical and entrepreneurial rather than sitting around talking about policy.

Now Steven Johnson has written a book that gives our politics a name. I can say that I’m a peer progressive. ‘Peer’ because my first instinct is to look for the peer-to-peer solution rather than the top-down government or corporate solution. ‘Progressive’ because I believe in making the world a better place rather than resting on tradition.

On Monday I went to along to see Steven talk about the book in San Francisco having read it on the plane over. It’s a book that Steven says he began thinking about when writing Emergence in 2000 when he noticed that all the network patterns he wrote about in terms of ants, brains, cities and software were also present in the way that the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999 were organised.

Steven was interviewed by Bill Wasik of Wired magazine who put it pretty well when he said it’s a pre-manifesto for a future politics — one that doesn’t quite exist yet. I’d agree with that, but I think when the shift from the big parties happens, it will happen quickly. I have a sneaking suspicion that the UK might be the most likely place for it to happen because our political parties are financial and organisational shadows of their former selves, unlike the US where they have huge financial muscle behind them.

I have a bet with a few Demos friends that the next UK election (in 2015) will be won by a party that didn’t exist before the 2010 election. I still stand by that. I think the innovation will be in process not policy and it may look nothing like our current parties. Although it wasn’t part of the bet, I’d add that technology will play a major part. The weak signals are in the Pirate Party’s LiquidFeedback system which, while a bit geeky at the moment, is along the right lines. I also think that Clay Shirky is onto something when he talks about Github as an innovation that could spread to democracy.

There are issues we’ll need to face though. Steven doesn’t really go into some of the theory of social networks that shows they develop an underlying structure that can lead to inequality of resources and influence — it’s even known as the rich-get-richer effect by network theorists. As peer progressive politics develops we’ll need to understand the dark side of networks much better.

But if you find yourself frustrated with our current politics then read Future Perfect. It’s intensely optimistic about the future but by showing just how much progress we’ve made over the last 20–30 years you come away thinking that it might be realistic too. We don’t live in a peer progressive world yet, but it might come sooner than you think.

Image by Riverhead Books.
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Why social investment is more than a fad

I’m no fan of buzzwords or phrases but sometimes there is something substantive behind them. Over the past few years ‘social investment’ (also known as ‘impact investment’ in some quarters, particularly the US) has been growing as an idea and, while I was a bit of a cynic early on, I’m coming round to the idea that it is more than just flavour of the month.

I got the chance to see Sir Ron Cohen give a couple of talks in London earlier this year. You might have seen him on Newsnight or similar over the past few months as he’s become more high profile as Chairman of Big Society Capital. His back-story is that he played a very significant role in the development of the venture capital and private equity industries in the UK and elsewhere, setting up Apax Partners in the 1970s. There’s a long list of interesting companies he’s either invested in early on or turned around using a more private equity like approach.

He tells the story of social investment slightly more formally in this SSIR article but about twelve years ago (apparently after a phone call from the Treasury of Gordon Brown’s era) he started thinking about how the approach he’d developed in financing businesses and delivering a return to investors could be applied to tackling social issues. The scale of the challenge was what interested him. He saw social problems getting bigger but charities and the public sector less able to innovate because all their time was spent servicing existing needs.

He set about proving that social investment could have an impact so co-founded Bridges and the Social Investment Business and played a role in the creation of social impact bonds that are now spreading to other countries. Sir Ronnie talks about social investment having a range of returns and for Big Society Capital he talks about an average return of 5–6%. Some people think that’s very ambitious in the current economic climate, but in the venture investment world that’s pretty low. VC funds that go fundraising would be predicting a 15–20% IRR.

Investors often talk about a ‘pipeline’ of investment. I’ve been watching this field develop over the last few years in the UK and one of the things I realised is that there’s a kink in the pipe right by the tap. As Seedcamp has done a fantastic job in solving that in for European tech startups over the past 5 years, the social investment world has to now focus on creating opportunities for the brightest and the best to start new ventures. BGV is our attempt to do that and I think it’s good that a few other people seem to be doing that too.

I think social investment will continue to grow and start to be an appealing source of finance for founders where they can see a match between their aims and those of their investors. It’s already becoming a bigger part of the investment world in Silicon Valley with many of the big names (such as Mitch Kapor) setting up ‘impact funds’. I’m sure there will be plenty of mistakes along the way but I’m pretty hopeful that the growth of social investment will be a good thing.

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Jawbone Big Jambox

Have to admit I’m loving our new Jawbone BIG Jambox. The sound quality and volume it produces are pretty amazing and it’s so easy to pair up with a laptop, tablet or phone. You can also use it as a speaker-phone for mobile phone or skype calls although I haven’t really tested that out in anger yet. So far, it firmly falls into the ‘just works’ camp of electronics — I think I’ve only pressed one button on it.

We got a little bit of an Amazon windfall that made it cheaper than the slightly steep $299 list price. I haven’t really heard the smaller JamBox which seems to be quite discounted at the moment so can’t say whether that’s as good. Most of the solutions I’ve looked at for sound seem to involve extra software, rewiring your house or lots of expensive equipment. Jambox doesn’t need any of those so is just perfect for what I was looking for. If you’re looking for a simple way to get good sound quality from internet services like iPlayer or Spotify I’d thoroughly recommend it.