Working Well Challenge

I’ve been helping out a bit on the Design Council’s Working Well Challenge (supported by the Nominet Trust) for the past six months or so and yesterday was Demo Day where the three teams pitched what they’ve been working on. They were brilliant and all are well worth finding out more about. They were:

Discoverables  is a website that uses a game-like approach to help young people find and develop their key skills and strengths. Users earn ‘discoverability points’ as they take on missions and challenges in order to create a rich showcase page that they can email to employers or take to interviews.

The Matter is a newspaper run, produced and published entirely by young people. Each edition is their public response to a question asked by the government or a business.

Step Up is a website that helps young people to identify their career ambition, and provides them with the means and confidence to connect with those that can help them achieve it.

Before the teams pitched Mike and Mat asked me to say a little bit about what’s going on in the world of tech social ventures. Here’s roughly what I said:


My name is Paul Miller and I help run Bethnal Green Ventures. We invest in and support very early stage social ventures that are using technology to solve problems in healthcare, education, employment and sustainability.

My involvement with the Working Well Challenge has been via the steering group. It’s been a lot of fun and I’ve been hugely impressed by the progress the teams made and I hope you are too when you hear from them in a few moments time.

Before your hear from them, I thought I’d give you a little context. We live in pretty challenging times employment wise, especially if you’re young. Britain’s youth unemployment rate stands at 21% — double the average across all working age groups. Across Europe the picture is even worse. Both Greece and Spain’s youth unemployment rates surpassed 50% in 2012, Spain’s has now reached 55%.

Even more challenging is that it seems old solutions may not work any more. We used to be able to say that when the growth came back after a recession, employment would return too. This time that doesn’t seem to be the case. In the US, the growth is back but the employment isn’t. It’s thought that nearly 4 million so-called ‘middle-class’ or ‘graduate’ jobs have disappeared, being replaced, at best, by very low paid jobs.

Working well won’t be about working like your parents, or even your older brother or sister. In just the space of a decade, employment has changed almost beyond recognition for many people with much greater demands for flexibility, completely different ways of finding jobs, and entirely different career paths. The world has changed and we’re struggling to keep up.

The bright spot in this gloomy outlook is in the world of startups. The tech startup and investment world was about the quickest to bounce back after 2008 and increasingly those startups and their founders are looking at solving big, important problems.

Perhaps they’re listening to people like Jeff Hammerbacher who was one of the first employees at Facebook (but then left) saying:

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.”

Or perhaps they’re listening to Tim O’Reilly’s rallying call for engineers to:

“Work on stuff that matters”.

Or maybe they’ve noticed the growth in something people call ‘impact investing’ or ‘social investment’. Commercial, philanthropic and public sector seem to be converging on a new set of tools that use the rigour of venture capital and private equity to have a social impact as well. Just in the UK, it’s a source of capital that is expected to grow to be billions in the coming years.

Whatever the reason, the growth in digital startups that are solving problems in healthcare, education and sustainability has been rapid.

I look up to companies like Fitbit, Ring-a-doc, Codecademy, Skillshare,, even Tesla in the US. Closer to home there are companies like AMEE, Patients know best or projects like Patchwork from FutureGov to help multiagency working around young people.

The skills of the people working on these projects in terms of engineering and design are superb. They are definitely some of the finest minds of their generation.

But on to tonight. There’s lots of talk about risk in this world and you might find yourself sceptical that any of these ideas will ever work — they just sound too ambitious.  Reid Hoffman has a colourful metaphor for running a startup when he says it’s like:

“Jumping off a cliff and assembling an aeroplane on the way down.”

I don’t see it like that. The truth is a bit more mundane for most startups. In fact it’s just a humungous todo list and there’s almost certainly something on that list for the teams tonight that you can help with.

When you’re listening to the teams tell you what they’ve done tonight, I’d urge you to come at it with a very simple mindset. Just think to yourself, “How can I help?”

If we all start approaching these big scary problems like that, we might have a chance.

Back catalogue — Open Policy

It’s ten years since I started writing pamphlets. It actually all started when I was at university and picked up a book in Blackwells called Life After Politics and realised that you could get across really interesting ideas in a few thousand words. Apparently:

In order to count as a pamphlet, UNESCO requires a publication (other than a periodical) to have “at least 5 but not more than 48 pages exclusive of the cover pages”

I thought it might be interesting to take a trip down memory lane and see what I was thinking about and whether any of them held water 5–10 years on. It’s also the 20th birthday of Demos this year which is where I wrote most of my stuff during the noughties.

The first pamphlet I wrote (in 2002) was called Open Policy (free to download here or £24 on Amazon!) when I was working at Forum for the Future. At the time I remember I was deep into learning about hacker culture and network theory and I’d come across the work of Jonah Peretti.

With the click of a mouse, the message was sent. Nike, sports clothing giant and symbol of personal freedom, had created a feature on their website allowing shoppers to customise shoes with words or slogans of their choice. On 5 January 2001, Jonah Peretti ordered a pair of shoes customised with the word ‘sweatshop’ and Nike refused to deliver. But the email conversation between Peretti and the Nike customer services department about why the company wouldn’t allow his request was stored on Peretti’s computer.

Peretti forwarded the email conversation to just twelve friends, but within hours thousands of people had seen the message. Within days the message had been posted on popular discussion sites like and and was seen by tens of thousands of other internet users. Soon, Peretti was getting calls from journalists and TV producers asking him for interviews. NBC’s Today programme flew him to New York to appear live in front of millions of viewers. There was nothing Nike could do to put the genie back in the bottle. Once the message was out, there was no going back.

Reading back there were a whole series of ideas going on which I thought were connected. The first was hacktivism (the pamphlet was actually going to be called ‘Hacktivism’ until quite late on) which I thought was going to increase as uptake of technology continued. I was right there. What I didn’t predict was the growth of social media managers to manage it. In 2002 if you worked for an agency you built websites for people, now you manage their social media.

Then there were the values baked into the internet itself:

In designing a network of computers one needs to set rules by which computers can communicate with one another. The rules are informed by the values of those creating the rules, just as the laws passed by a government depend on the values of the individual politicians in that government.

The other theme was applying open source principles to decision making both in companies and in government, which is where the title came from.

The argument presented in this essay is that there is a need for a massive increase in transparency. Organisations should learn from the open source movement where sharing and openness leads to far greater innovation.

It’s an idea that Clay Shirky has talked about much more eloquently recently.

And then it all ends by getting a bit meta:

Reductionism isn’t limited to science. It has permeated government and business thinking for the entire twentieth century. Institutionally, we are struggling to adapt the hierarchies of the reductionist age to the challenges of the network society.Only now are policymakers beginning to sense that the complexity of society cannot be handled using command and control. Our reaction to complexity, whether we are dazzled in the headlights of unpredictability or thrive on the unlimited possibilities, is key to the survival of society. And if we are to thrive we will need new tools.

Reading it back isn’t completely embarrassing — there were a few interesting ideas in there even if it doesn’t quite hold together as a whole. The pamphlet didn’t really get any media coverage but it did get downloaded a lot. I think making publications free was a bit of a novelty at the time. It did also get me noticed by Tom Bentley who was Director of Demos at the time. And that’s where I wrote my next few pamphlets…

What should we be worried about?

John Brockman’s Annual Question is ‘What should we be worried about?’ by which I think he means, ignoring the profile different threats get in the media and looking at real evidence, what could cause a real threat to humanity?

There’s some good stuff in there and some very worrying things I hadn’t heard about before. Brian Eno talks about something that chimes with my experience and has worried me for a while:

Most of the smart people I know want nothing to do with politics. We avoid it like the plague—like Edge avoids it, in fact. Is this because we feel that politics isn’t where anything significant happens? Or because we’re too taken up with what we’re doing, be it Quantum Physics or Statistical Genomics or Generative Music? Or because we’re too polite to get into arguments with people? Or because we just think that things will work out fine if we let them be—that The Invisible Hand or The Technosphere will mysteriously sort them out?

Whatever the reasons for our quiescence, politics is still being done—just not by us. It’s politics that gave us Iraq and Afghanistan and a few hundred thousand casualties. It’s politics that’s bleeding the poorer nations for the debts of their former dictators. It’s politics that allows special interests to run the country. It’s politics that helped the banks wreck the economy. It’s politics that prohibits gay marriage and stem cell research but nurtures Gaza and Guantanamo.

But we don’t do politics. We expect other people to do it for us, and grumble when they get it wrong. We feel that our responsibility stops at the ballot box, if we even get that far. After that we’re as laissez-faire as we can get away with.

What worries me is that while we’re laissez-ing, someone else is faire-ing.

Contact management for small teams

We’ve been testing a few CRM platforms at Bethnal Green Ventures over the past couple of weeks and I thought it was worth writing up what we found because when I had a bit of a search around I couldn’t find any particularly relevant reviews. Because it’s a couple of years since I last looked at what’s available, things have moved on a lot — mainly because of APIs which let them integrate with Gmail and all the social media platforms.

We’re a team of 3/4 people who are usually in the same office but travel quite a lot. Our basic requirement is to be able to see who’s contacted who but it also:

  • Needs to work out of the box. We’d prefer not to have to spend ages configuring it.
  • Needs to have custom tags
  • Good social media integration a plus
  • Shouldn’t cost more than £50 a month for 4 users and 10,000 contacts.

After a quick look at the really big systems (Salesforce, SugarCRM etc) which we decided just needed too much configuration, we decided to give these ones a go:

We’ve actually tried Insightly and Highrise before but never really stuck with them. Having said that we’re big fans of what 37signals have done with Basecamp, it seems like an all together better product than it was a few years ago so, so we were willing to give it another go.

First impressions:

Insightly: not particularly slick and the layout was a bit confusing (2/5)
Solve360: looks a lot like Google Apps but actually a bit confusing (3/5)
Nimble: good looking and easy to navigate (4/5)
Highrise: simple and intuitive (4/5)

Adding contacts in bulk:

Insightly: took a few minutes to work out that it uses your gmail address book (3/5)
Solve360: couldn’t immediately see how to do this at all (2/5)
Nimble: so easy, added Gmail, Linkedin, Twitter contacts within minutes (5/5)
Highrise: not quite so straightforward, struggled adding exported address book from Gmail (3/5)


All of them pretty good to be honest if you know what you’re looking for (all 4/5).


You have to be an admin in Solve360 to create tags which confused us for a while (2/5). Highrise is let down by not having a simple way to see a list of companies (3/5). Nimble and Insightly pretty good (4/5).

Fun to use?

Insightly: not particularly fun, but not bad (3/5)
Solve360: we got frustrated pretty quickly, definitely not fun (1/5)
Nimble: it sounds daft but both Lily and I found ourselves a bit addicted to adding and updating people (5/5)
Highrise: pretty good but nowhere near as fun as Nimble because there’s less social media integration (4/5)

Cost (4 users, 10,000 contacts):

Insightly: $29 per month
Solve360: $49 per month
Nimble: $60 per month
Highrise: $49 per month

So overall we liked Nimble the best. Yes, it’s the most expensive but still reasonable I think and it’s genuinely amazing how much of the work it does for you.

Prevention engines

Prevention is better than cure, so the saying goes, and I’ve been thinking about what kind of tools could be built to help individuals and organisations know when they themselves or somebody they’d like to help is at risk of harm. This really thoughtful post by Rev Dan Catt got me particularly thinking about depression. He writes about how he really understood that something wasn’t right because he looked at the data he regularly collects about his Twitter, Flickr, email and IM use:

What I was seeing was a change in my behaviour, a measurable mental state. And once I’d seen the numbers it made it easier to figure out what was going on.

Behaviour based apps that alert you (or somebody who can help) when you’re at risk might be a really interesting avenue. As Dan writes in the post, there are a few signifiers that you could use to spot a change in behaviour and it would be an interesting machine learning problem to solve them for different people. If you’re thinking about the NHS, the idea would be that promoting particular apps would be a way of avoiding people being admitted into the system in the first place. It might not just apply to depression — are there things that happen before older people have falls for example?

Another approach would be to look at bigger data. Most public sector organisations I’ve spoken to had no idea how much data they really had and didn’t know that even unstructured data can be analysed using tools like those Mastodon C have at their disposal. Once a pattern has been recognised (often using historical data from when things have gone wrong before), it’s not hard to set up a system that spots the early stages of that pattern and tells the agency it should intervene. This could be just as applicable to social services as the NHS.

And then there’s some really interesting stuff going on around new forms of diagnosis. This software that can detect Parkinson’s disease just from a phone call might just be one of a whole raft of new inventions re-imagining how we go about diagnosing conditions. And often, if you catch something early you can do a lot more to treat it.

Most of the time when we think about how to solve problems we have a cognitive bias towards solutions to the symptoms rather than the cause. But I think this kind of prevention engine has a lot of potential. It might sound a bit Minority Report but by being able to spot things before they happen we could save an awful lot of pain and money if we get it right.

Robert Wright on big problems

I was sad to see that Robert Wright is stepping down as a regular writer for the Atlantic — his posts over the past year have been excellent. I’ve always been a fan — Non Zero is one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read and probably as much of a manifesto for peer progressives as Future Perfect.

I’ll leave you to read his sign off in full but I liked the section where he outlined three beliefs that underlie his thinking but which he says he rarely articulates directly. The first one in particular caught my eye:

The world’s biggest single problem is the failure of people or groups to look at things from the point of view of other people or groups — i.e. to put themselves in the shoes of “the other.” I’m not talking about empathy in the sense of literally sharing people’s emotions — feeling their pain, etc. I’m just talking about the ability to comprehend and appreciate the perspective of the other. So, for Americans, that might mean grasping that if you lived in a country occupied by American troops, or visited by American drone strikes, you might not share the assumption of many Americans that these deployments of force are well-intentioned and for the greater good. You might even get bitterly resentful. You might even start hating America.

The example is a good one but there are plenty of other situations where looking at things from the point of view of other people would help a lot.

Measuring your impact for impact investors

As impact investing catches on I think one of the most important things will be how the social and environmental impact of the ventures it invests in is measured.

At the end of last year, our friends at Nesta published their ‘Standards of Evidence’ for impact investing which are really helpful. Rather than trying to define all the different types of impact and setting standards (which would be incredibly difficult and I think could stultify innovation) they’ve defined different levels of collecting data about impact that they expect to see as startups develop.

It’s a bit like the way you can categorise startups into pre-seed, seed, series A etc in financial terms but with the focus on evidence of impact rather than the finances.

Here’s the short summary of the levels:

  • Level 1: Account of impact – this means a potential investee can clearly say what a product or service does and why this may have a positive impact on one of our outcomes in a logical, coherent and convincing way.
  • Level 2: Correlation – at this stage some data is being collected which show a positive impact on the users of the product or service, but it is not confirmed that the investment caused this.
  • Level 3: Causation – here we will expect to see that the positive change amongst the users of the product or service is happening because of the product or service.
  • Level 4: Independent replication – the claims behind a product or service will have been validated, such as through an independently conducted evaluation. At Level 4 we would also expect to see that the product or service can deliver this positive impact at a reasonable cost.
  • Level 5: Scaled – to reach this point it is clear that the product or service can be operated by someone else, somewhere else and on a large scale, whilst continuing to have positive and direct impact on the outcome, and whilst remaining a financially viable proposition.

With BGV we’ll accept teams that are at or below level 1 but our aim will be to help all our ventures get to level 1 by the end of the programme and level 2 by 6–12 months after the programme.

As a social venture it’s well worth getting your head around this because the earlier you start thinking this way, the easier it will be as you go along. The whole impact investing world is getting a lot more savvy and this will be one of their most important tools for differentiating themselves from one another and from more old school investors.

Startup offices

We’ve just moved into a new office and it got me thinking how much things have changed since I last had to think about the best kind of places to work for startups in London.

The most notable trend is the blossoming of co-working spaces over the past five years. For early stage (at least pre-seed) startups they’re a great option because of the flexibility and the lack of hassle. Just a simple contract (you don’t have to worry about buying furniture or the bills) and then monthly payments depending on how much time you want to be there and how many desks you want. Couldn’t be easier and there’s also a lot of choice, particularly in East London. You can go for the kind of place that has the feel you like best whether that’s Shoreditch Works, TechHub, the Trampery, Bathtub to Boardroom or one of the Hubs.

Office space is also thrown in with many accelerator programmes and some are really good. We were very lucky with the 2012 cohort of BGV teams to have a floor of Google Campus in Shoreditch. Of the big tech companies Google are the kings of office design as far as I’m concerned. Over time you really noticed the little touches that made it work like getting the sight lines in and out of meeting rooms just right or having storage that gave people enough but didn’t allow junk to build up.

If I was a startup today and had a few choices I think I’d work out how good the office was for the following features in this order of importance (1 highest):

  1. Space to work individually — particularly to code
  2. Space to talk as a team
  3. Space to talk to customers, investors or other visitors — either on the phone or in person
  4. Space and opportunities to meet other startups

Some of those can be in the same actual bit of the office but you need to make sure that mixed use doesn’t cause problems.

The other thing to look for these days is who else is in the space or generally around. Are your ideal investors regular visitors? Are there other founders you look up to who drop by? If you want media coverage do journalists come and visit? Plenty of those are possible these days.

Thinking about it, the variety of office space options is another example of how things are much better than they used to be for startups in London. Let me know if you have other tips or things you think are ‘must haves’ for offices.

The Launch Pad by Randall Stross


The Launch Pad is the first book to take a really in-depth look into Y Combinator. New York Times columnist and professor at San Jose State University, Randall Stross was given access to the programme and teams for the Summer 2011 cohort. At the time there were 64 companies in the batch and Stross followed them from their interviews and selection through the three month programme and on to to the first reunion held 5 weeks after Demo Day.

I’m a bit of an accelerator geek so I enjoyed the book. For me, Y Combinator is one of the most significant innovations in technology and investment in the last decade and I’m always impressed by the way the team continue to innovate. The book doesn’t shy away from some of the problems they face though

  • How male the programme is — generally cohorts have been more than 90% male founders. It’s a problem they’d like to deal with but haven’t solved yet.
  • The difficulties of scale — growing from eight teams to 64 per cohort has been quite a challenge. During the 2011 cohort, the book hints that system was creaking a bit especially at the interviews and Demo Day. The current batch is smaller at 50 or so teams.
  • Too much money — there are hints in the book that the partners realised that the Start Fund and SV Angel money ($150,000 for every team accepted) had warped things. They’ve now renegotiated it to be $80,000 and include more time from the investors involved.

The other thing that came through for me was how different the partners are and how they’re each good at different things. It also shows how you need to be able to distinguish between good and bad advice, no matter where it comes from, even if that advice is coming from the best in the business.

If you know a bit about Y Combinator or read Hacker News every now and then The Launch Pad probably won’t contain too many revelations but it is a great introduction to how accelerator programmes differ from other types of investment or business support. If you’re thinking of applying for Y Combinator or any other accelerator programme, well worth a read.

The power of inquiries

It strikes me that 2012 was a good year for inquiries. Lord Leveson’s into the phone hacking scandal and media standards was perhaps the most high profile but there were many more such as the Vickers Inquiry into banking and the Tyrie Inquiry into the Libor rate fixing scandal. Each had different processes and powers and will probably have varying effects on the things they were set up to investigate.

I started wondering whether how you do inquiries as a nation might be important. We run public inquiries very rarely because they’re generally thought to be expensive and intrusive but maybe we should have more. What if we systematised the process and had a National Inquiry Service that could handle much greater throughput than just having one Levenson scale inquiry every few years for example?  I don’t know whether there’s a country that does it particularly well but in terms of learning the lessons from failure, it might be something we should do a lot more of.

If we got it right, the culture of investigating, analysing and recommending could be something that begins to permeate other areas of life. In my experience, organisations vary wildly in their ability to learn from events. I remember reading about Alcoa’s approach to accidents in the 1980s where within a week of any accident, the division head had to write to the CEO of the company (Paul O’Neill at the time) saying what had happened, what had caused it and what was going to be done to stop it from ever happening again. Over time it had a huge effect.

It’s also something I wish we taught much more. The skills involved in learning how to improve systems seem to be much neglected but could have a really positive impact in lots of settings. Anyway, just a thought.