The genius of Parkrun

Photo some rights reserved by Darren Foreman.

We’ve been told we need to exercise more for years now, but finally it seems to be sinking in. While the stats for the proportion of people who are overweight or obese are still awful and the number of people who get little to no regular exercise are nothing to be proud about, there are more and more organisations catering to growing demand for physical activity.

Alongside teams we’ve worked with at BGV like GoodGym, Run an Empire and The Hard Yard, my favourite example is Parkrun. It’s been going since 2004 but has really started ramping up in the last few years and now operates in 15 countries with over a hundred thousand people all running a timed 5km on a Saturday morning just for fun.

To begin with we collated all results on paper and the finish tokens were washers from the local hardware store! But eventually we ramped up the technology, and so the parkrun registration and barcode result system was born.

It is a genius system — so simple but effective, which could be said of the design of the organisation as a whole. It’s completely reliant on volunteers and every Parkrun around the world has the same basic pattern. This leads to Parkrun tourism with people racing to see how many different runs they can do. I’ve got my eye on the busiest Parkrun in the world which is in North Beach in Durban, South Africa where they had over 2,000 runners last weekend.

I love going along to my local event in Mile End Park in London. There were over 400 people there this weekend and I don’t think that was just because the IAAF World Athletics Championships were taking place round the corner. There’s plenty of room to grow and I think we’ll see more and more organisations catering for the demand from people to get more active.

Ten years on from the first murmurings of the financial crisis

Alastair Darling was on the radio this week talking about how he got his first inkling of the financial crisis while on holiday in France. It was ten years ago and he’d walked into the local village to pick up some croissants and a copy of the FT and he read the news that BNP Paribas had frozen three funds with exposure to sub-prime mortgages. I was just looking back in my diary and it turns out I was on holiday in a French village as well — I have to admit that I didn’t read the FT and I had no suspicion of what was going to happen until many months later, but the crisis went on to have a big effect on everything around me.

I’ve just finished reading Ben Bernanke’s autobiography The Courage to Act and learned a huge amount about what happened and how central banking and financial regulation work. It’s not a short book and it does have quite a lot of detail about particular meetings and the way that decisions were made, but I loved all that. Bernanke took the job with a promise to make the Federal Reserve more transparent and he’s certainly done that by explaining its inner workings in this book.

Bernanke had a hard act to follow. Alan Greenspan had been Chairman of the Fed since the 1980s and was fairly universally respected. With hindsight of course he made some very big mistakes and allowed the buildup of toxic financial products that Bernanke had to help fix. Bernanke hints that Greenspan was a ‘bit of a character’ but doesn’t outright criticise him except to say that he resisted transparency in a way that Bernanke would then go on to reverse.

As Bernanke came to realise, 90% of his job was communication and giving other people confidence that everything would be ok and 10% actually involved action and doing things like providing money to stop ‘too interconnected to fail’ institutions from going under. Bernanke was very well prepared for what happened because of his academic career studying the Great Depression of the 20s and 30s.

One thing struck me about his approach though — underneath all the technical and political goings on he doesn’t mention ever personally questioning whether the American economy could fail. It wasn’t just that the stock market could crash — there were people who were worried that capitalism was teetering and it was time to get out. Bernanke never seems to have thought of that possibility though, which is telling.

The final section of the book contains his reflections on where we are now and he cites three reasons he’s optimistic about the future of the US. I’m guessing it was written before Trump came to power because all three reasons sound pretty flimsy now. The first is immigration, the second is technological innovation and the third is company building. I’m a huge fan of America but I wouldn’t hold out too much hope of those trends improving for the next four years.

Tech for Good LPs

A different kind of LP…

It makes me really angry to see bad behaviour in the tech industry. Over the past year, there’s been seemingly unending stream of sexism, sexual harassment, bullying, and alleged fraud. Each time a new story comes out I want to scream — tech has so much potential but it will go to waste if people like this are allowed to shape the future of the industry.

One of the only good things to come out of the last couple of months is that a few investors in venture capital funds (normally known as Limited Partners or LPs) have spoken out in a way that I haven’t seen before. I was really heartened to see Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein take a stand — they did so with Uber (a direct investment) and then they did the same with 500 Startups (where they were LPs). It was the first time I think I’ve seen such a public, progressive, activist move from an LP — I think that’s a great sign and I wish more investors would do it. In general LPs don’t say anything about their investments, even to the extent of not really admitting where their money is invested, but venture capital is where the seeds of culture and behaviour are sown and LPs could have a huge influence.

We’re very lucky at Bethnal Green Ventures that all our LPs (Big Society Capital, Nesta and Nominet Trust) have invested in us because they want to see technology used for a positive social purpose and done so to the highest ethical standards. We’ve written it into our governing documents and they take a keen interest in all the decisions we make. We love having LPs who are there to keep us on our toes in terms of our mission and who will let us know very quickly if they feel we’re not living up to their expectations. Of course they’re ambitious for us financially as well.

I think this kind of tech for good LP should be the norm not the exception. Only that way will we change the tech industry down the line and break the biases and bad behaviour we’ve seen in the tech industry of late.

The Hunt for Vulcan

Before Vulcan became the birthplace of Mr Spock and a British bomber aircraft, but after it was the Roman god of fire and volcanoes, it was a non-existent planet.

The Hunt for Vulcan by Thomas Levenson is a great little book telling the story of how Newton’s theory led to its discovery and Einstein’s general theory of relativity led to its destruction.

Newton’s amazing work led to the discovery of a whole host of celestial objects as theorists looked at the trajectories of the existing planets and realised that to explain their paths through the sky there must be other bodies whose gravitational force was affecting them. The most famous example at the time was Neptune theorised by Urbain Le Verrier and then observed by astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle.

The progression of the planet Mercury made everybody at the time think that it too must have a hidden body affecting its orbit and many people claimed to have seen it. For over a hundred years astronomers searched for Vulcan — even naming the shy planet before they’d truly found it.

Ultimately though, it took Einstein to realise that Vulcan wasn’t just hiding, it didn’t exist. Newton’s theory only told us so much about the universe. The slight discrepancy in the progression of Mercury from Newton’s laws was actually a result of relativity not a hidden planet. The Hunt for Vulcan tells the story of how Einstein developed his theory and you can’t help but marvel at just how much of a one-off he was. In a few short years, Einstein completely changed science and our understanding of the universe and in so doing proved that Vulcan just didn’t exist.

Shoe dogs and sweatshops

I finished listening to the audiobook of Phil Knight’s autobiography Shoe Dog over the weekend. Knight is the co-founder of Nike and was in charge there for 40 years. It’s an amazing book — possibly one of the best business books I’ve ever read — there were so many moments when it could all have gone wrong and the key characters are amazing. I would love to find out more about Jeff Johnson who comes across as the creative genius of the bunch. He was employee number 1 and creator of the early shoes as well as the person who came up with the name Nike (the company was previously called Blue Ribband). These days Johnson apparently lives in the countryside with a giant library that he keeps open 24 hours for anybody to use. Knight — by his own admission — was a terrible manager in his early days but over time he grew as a CEO because he focused on culture rather than trying to manage everything himself.

Reading the book also took me back to my past and made me think about how much business has moved on in the last twenty years. When I was at university I was a campaigner. I was a member of People & Planet and was actively involved in campaigning about all kinds of environmental and human rights issues from supermarket policies towards Fairtrade, through to the university pension fund’s policies on ethical investment. Nike of course also came in for lots of flack from campaigners in the late 1990s and in the final chapter of the book Knight says the ‘sweatshop’ campaign was one of the most significant events in his career.

He took the allegations incredibly personally and reading the book and hearing the story of Nike you can tell why. Nike wasn’t just business for him or for the other key people in the company — it was their identity, their outlet, their personal mission to try and make a mark on the world. So when people started attacking the company he took it as a huge criticism of him as a person. He didn’t react well and now realises that his response — which was to become incredibly defensive — was the wrong one.

Eventually Nike took it as a lesson. They are now much more overt about trying to be a positive force in the world. As a publicly listed consumer-facing company they realised that to survive long term you need to acknowledge and address issues like that. Their supply chain still isn’t perfect but it is much better than it used to be. I think these days their big issue is how entwined they are in the grey areas of professional sport caused by the huge sums of money involved. Knight is out of the picture but it will be interesting to see how the culture he created deals with that.

Blockchain for good?

I decided it was time to read a bit more about blockchain. First of all I went back to the original article about bitcoin written by the mystical Satoshi Nakamoto back in 2008. It’s a pretty easy read with only a smidgen of maths and you can see why it has spawned so much thinking and activity. While generally understated, it makes some big claims and has all the dog-whistle phrases for the crypto-anarchists and techno-libertarians out there.

But to go a bit deeper, I settled in with Don and Alex Tapscott’s book The Blockchain Revolution and overall I would say it’s a very good introduction. Alongside reading some more technical articles on the web and trying out some of the software for myself (it had moved on quite a bit from when I last tried it in 2013), it gave me a better idea of the potential for blockchain and what the pitfalls might be.

The book is fairly breathless on the opportunities. It runs through hundreds of potential applications — some of which exist and some of which are just on the drawing board at the moment. These range from land registries to international remittance platforms alongside banking and smart contracts. All fascinating stuff and a lot of the proposed applications land firmly in the tech for good camp.

But when I’ve then talked to people who know a lot more about these things than me, most have reservations. There are still huge barriers to adoption and blockchain becoming a truly trusted platform. The main one from the point of view of ‘blockchain for good’ is the fact that humans are involved along the way. Blockchain is a very clever technology but that doesn’t change the fact that things often need to be verified in the real world and the technology can’t yet do that in an unhackable way.

And that’s where I end up on blockchain. Lots of opportunity but it’s never going to do away with the need for institutions or understanding how real people think and behave — indeed, to argue that it will feels dangerous to me.

The GoodGym story

Ivo did an amazing job of telling the story of GoodGym on BBC Radio Four’s Four Thought last night.

I first came across the idea at Social Innovation Camp in 2008 which Ivo mentions in the programme — I remember him doing his final pitch on crutches because he’d injured his knee and using one crutch as a pointer during his presentation. Winning Social Innovation Camp gave him a little bit of external validation which he used to get other people behind the idea. I joined the board and then became a trustee and have followed the journey up to where we are now. There have been plenty of people along the way who’ve said ‘that’ll never work’ but still it keeps on growing.

I think the reason it keeps on growing is the sense of community that people get from being part of it. I was up at the annual GoodGym ‘shindig’ in the Peak District a few weeks back where the branch organisers get together to talk about what they’ve learned and partake in a bit of highly competitive endurance pub quizzing (and running of course). The community is real and authentic and its belief that you can and should do good as you get fit is incredibly strong. I think it’s going to keep on growing and it’s been a wonderful thing to have played a small part in along the way.

The best article I’ve read about being a CEO

I really like this article by Claire Lew about leadership. It neatly summarises what I try to live up to in a clearer and simpler way than I’ve been able to articulate. Beyond her first point “Know the purpose of your role: It’s NOT to manage”, she outlines nine principles which I think are all very practical and actionable:

  • Create clarity
  • Provide context
  • Ensure psychological safety
  • Ask meaningful questions
  • Respond within 24 hours
  • Let go
  • Lead from the front
  • Be consistent
  • Build rapport

Being a CEO isn’t something that comes naturally to everyone and I really hate the chest thumping stereotype of how you should apparently behave. Indeed, many of the best CEOs I’ve worked with are completely the opposite of that. I’d go so far as to say that being a bit uncomfortable in the role is pretty helpful because it means you know it’s something you need to work on.

Car crash?

The opportunity for electric car conversion startups

By 2025/30 I think the majority of new cars sold will be electric only. The signals from governments that they’re going to ban fossil fuel engines will start to shift consumer behaviour much sooner than the dates the bans are actually scheduled to come in. Frankly, I can’t see many of the big car companies making it much longer than 2025/30 either. Not because they don’t have the technology to become electric car companies but because they were too slow to shift their investment programmes. They’re going to make a big loss on the investments they’re still making now in things like more efficient petrol or diesel engines which will put them at a huge financial disadvantage to companies only investing in developing electric car technologies.

But I think the bigger problem for the big car companies is the way they’ve tried to change the nature of car ownership. There was a little mention of it on the Today programme this morning — almost nine in ten cars are leased or on some form of finance rather than owned outright so it’s looking like there will be a glut of second hand cars in a few years time. If you take into account that many of those cars will be diesel and by that point it will be clear that they won’t be welcome in cities, you start to wonder whether there’s a big crash coming. Ultimately the people who own the majority of the cars on the roads are the big leasing companies which in turn are linked to the manufacturers. They have great cash flow but will they be able to weather the storm of a huge drop in value when electric becomes the only thing that people want? It doesn’t look like it to me.

Which brings me to the opportunity. Everything apart from the propulsion system in modern cars is amazing. They’re safer, quieter and more comfortable than they’ve ever been. In a few years time there will be millions of chassis that nobody want on the market which I’m guessing will be pretty inexpensive. The opportunity I see is in converting them to run electrically by taking the engines out and replacing them with motors and batteries. It’s not completely straightforward but it may well be much cheaper option for many people than buying a new electric car.