What impact investors can learn from journalists

Image by C.A.D.Schjelderup from Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

It’s struck me for a while that there are similarities between really good investors and great investigative journalists. The most obvious similarity is that they both ask good questions but I think there’s more to it than that.

As a journalist you have to uncover a story that nobody else has told. You have to zig when others zag, not just to be contrarian but because you believe in the importance of the story even though nobody else might at the time. I’ve lost count of the number of movies where journalists have to convince their editors that the story they’re working on is worth pursuing (why is it that editors always come in for stick?). Journalism is often a fairly lonely business in the early days of a story. You might get a big team working on a story once it has grown but when you’re finding out about it for the first time, it’s one or two people.

There’s also their role in uncovering information. Both professions rely on hard facts and those facts might not seem hard when you first come across them. In the case of journalism, it might be that somebody is trying to hide facts from you. In startup investing, it’s often that even the founders are struggling to spot the hard facts themselves. It takes pattern recognition to notice when things are really important and when things are inconsequential.

Then there’s the importance of telling the story in both professions. For journalists that’s obvious — if you can’t tell the story well you’re not going to get very far. But as an investor, the process you go through is one of helping founders to tell their own story to customers, other investors and the outside world. I think this is even more important for impact investments where the story of the positive social or environmental effect that the company’s product or service has should be an integral part of its value.

There’s a similarity in the temperament of great journalists and great investors that I’ve noticed as well. Both are hooverers of information — they read huge amounts and are constantly are looking for the next story/venture. They know that many of their investigations will come to nothing but all of them are good lessons.

Drinking problems (and some solutions)

Image by Samir Weres. Some rights reserved.

“It’s unpleasantly like being drunk.” 
 “What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?” 
 “You ask a glass of water.”

― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

I’ve been thinking a lot about our relationship with alcohol recently. This article in the Economist about alcohol misuse in America particularly peaked my interest.

Between 2006 and 2010, an average of 106,765 Americans died each year from alcohol-related causes such as liver disease, alcohol poisoning and drunk driving — more than twice the number of overdoses from all drugs and more than triple the number of opioid overdoses in 2015.

The trend, particularly among women, minorities and the elderly in America is getting worse.

That’s not good because the health implications of alcohol are, as the article implies, very bad. David Nutt is one of the most interesting scientists in the field and in this programme for the BBC he talks about how alcohol would fare in the current testing regime for drugs were it to be tested for the first time today. His conclusion is that by current standards we would recommend something like one glass of wine a year.

The social implications of alcohol are no less problematic. The total tax take from alcohol is about £11 billion but the costs of policing Friday and Saturday night drinking hotspots is billions alone, not counting the impact of crime on citizens.

At the moment Brits drink more than Americans, but the trend on this side of the Atlantic is in the opposite direction. Each year we’re drinking less.

BGV portfolio company Club Soda’s Mindful Drinking Festivals and have tapped into this brilliantly. There are a whole host of new drinks companies springing up and the established brands are also creating new product lines that cater to people who would rather remember their evenings. It’s interesting to watch the large drinks companies realise they have a problem.

I do drink but I’m also acutely aware that alcohol is a habit and the amount I drink is socially influenced, particularly when it comes to work events. I totted it up and I go to nearly a hundred work-related evening events a year and alcohol is the norm. Although it was a bit awkward for us (as Nesta is one of our investors), I did like Laura from Club Soda’s public return of their New Radical Award. Nesta aren’t the only culprits of this but she’s absolutely right.

While we always make sure there are non-alcoholic alternatives at BGV evening events, we do still assume that some people will want alcohol. Perhaps we shouldn’t. This piece by Bethany Crystal at USV got me thinking — it sounds like a worthwhile challenge to create clear-headed evening events.

Should we say hello to aliens?


It’s an interesting, and possibly civilisation-ending, question. Should we go out of our way to let other alien civilisations know that we’re here, or try to remain very, very quiet? It’s an example in Steven Johnson’s excellent new book Farsighted — an expansive sweep of all the techniques that are available today to help us make better decisions.

The alien question builds on an article he wrote for the New York Times Magazine last year. It was about the projects that are searching for extraterrestrial life and those broadcasting messages in the hope of something hearing us. Over the last few years some scientists have become more excited about the potential for us hearing from other civilisations as we’ve found more and more planets in the ‘Goldilocks zone’ orbiting other stars in such a way that they are similar enough to Earth to support life.

But what if the response of aliens is to see us as a threat and immediately annihilate us? Colonialism would suggest that when people come and say hello, it’s not always good for the indigenous population. Of course, we can’t know exactly what will happen but one of the arguments in Farsighted is that fiction is one of the best ways of understanding and training for decision making.


There’s an amazing novel that does just that. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a mind bending experience through science fiction as The Three Body Problem trilogy by Cixin Liu. It’s about what happens when an alien civilization knows about us. The second book in particular is really disturbing. The Dark Forest in the title is the idea that in a universe of many millions of civilisations, it might not be a good idea for us to show where we are. The third book — Death’s End — takes it all to its logical conclusion.

The Three Body Problem completely stopped me in my tracks. I read all three books last year. It’s an immense achievement — there’s nothing quite like it. It was also the first science fiction book I’d read by a Chinese author but I’ve read a few others since and enjoyed them all. I’ve got no doubt it will become a classic and be read for centuries. If we last that long.

The Third Plate


The Third Plate by Dan Barber really got me thinking. Barber is the world renowned chef behind two amazing restaurants: Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York state. I haven’t been to either but after reading the book would love to. Barber also features in the first series of Chef’s Table on Netflix which is about him as a chef. The book is about a much bigger topic — the future of food.

The ‘third plate’ in book’s title is the imaginary plate of food that Barber would serve as ‘the future’ in a menu of the past, present and future of our food system. He has studied the history of farming and our diets in incredible detail, and the book catalogues all the problems it has created. He does this from the perspective of a chef who sees how it plays out in the taste of ingredients and not from an environmentalist’s point of view. His view is we’ve created an agricultural system where crops don’t taste nice, make us unhealthy and in the long run destroy the soil they’re grown in.

Barber stands out as a chef because of his relationship with the farmers who grow the ingredients for the restaurants. He’s a keen advocate of the farm to fork movement and the book describes his adventures learning about extraordinary farmers around the world. The sections in Spain where he learns about ethical foie gras and some amazing techniques for farming fish are particularly good. It’s not as simple as a transition to organic agriculture because none of our systems are set up to deal with that. It’s also very possible to grow organic mono-crops which don’t do much to help the land or the taste and health benefits of food.

You can tell a lot about a society from its food and thinking about the future through the medium of what we’ll eat and how we’ll grow it is an interesting exercise. It’s an area we’re super interested in investing in at BGV. It’s the intersection of technological and natural that interests us.

  • Transportation costs and labour shortages could drive agriculture closer to cities. Some people call this urban farming, others vertical farming (because if you do it in built up areas, the logical thing is to build farms upwards rather than sideways — we’ll measure farms in stories, not hectares). We’ve already invested in LettUs Grow in this area.
  • We’ll see huge leaps forward in understanding the microbiome of soil and plants in the coming years. We’re interested in technologies that will make this easier and more useful.
  • We’re also interested in technology that supports rewilding as agriculture reduces as a percentage of land use. We need to be prepared for this because it’s not just a case of leaving land to nature. We’ll need to be careful that we rewild properly — the chances of invasive species wrecking areas of land is pretty high.

The Third Plate is an excellent book. Well worth a read if you care about the food that you eat and where that might come from in the future.

Is tech for good reaching the mainstream?


It’s ten years since we began running Social Innovation Camps, the precursor to Bethnal Green Ventures. We created them because we wanted to help people use their technology skills to have a positive social and environmental impact. Our eventual aim was to help tech for good become mainstream.

So how far have we come? Are we any closer to making tech for good the norm? Well, yes and no.

Industry events are a pretty good way of judging the temperature of the tech sector and I’ve been to a lot recently. My impression is that interest in tech for good has definitely risen up the agenda at the big tech events like Slush, Web Summit, SXSW and VivaTech.

I remember a BGV portfolio company founder telling me about their visit to Web Summit in Dublin four years ago. It was a pretty depressing experience. They were dismissed as ‘charity’ and there was even an out-and-out argument with the founder of an ‘adult’ dating app in another exhibition booth who was firmly in the ‘business of business is business’ camp. I don’t think his business is in business these days.

Thankfully those arguments are much less common these days. Tech for good startups and positive discussions about social and environmental impact are commonplace now. I’d say we’re at the ‘promising support act’ stage, usually on panels away from the main stage. The people who come along to the talks are those already in the tech for good sector as well as those who are finding out about it for the first time. Each time I get a note afterwards from somebody saying ‘I wish they’d do more of this stuff’ or ‘how do I get involved?’.

At Web Summit this week there were whole areas given up to social impact and a day of ‘planet tech’ talks which was very good. As I mentioned yesterday, the tech for good startups I met in office hours showed great potential.

Then you can look at what the big companies are doing. It’s great to see companies like Facebook and Google starting to support the profit-with-purpose side of tech for good. Both run programmes for tech for good startups in London. The Campus Residency for Google and LDN_LAB ‘Deep Tech for Good’ for Facebook. We’re involved in both.

Investors are starting to join the movement too. I’d say it’s mainly limited to new investors starting firms rather than existing ones changing strategy. A few of the mainstream VCs have made occasional investments in impact companies. But it’s only when a big successful VC decides to become an impact investor that we’ll have won that battle.

Sometimes I get asked what percentage of startups are ‘tech for good’ and I don’t have a good answer to that I’m afraid. All I know is that there are more than there were. My definition of a tech for good venture is one where it’s the explicit intention of the founders to have a positive impact. So being ‘medtech’ or ‘edtech’ doesn’t necessarily put you in the tech for good boat. You can create a startup in those sectors that reinforces existing problems or inequality — and isn’t ‘for good’ at all.

So there are many positives but tech for good isn’t mainstream yet. I’d give us 6/10. It’s a good start.

Stop hating, start helping

Image by hipxxhearts, some rights reserved.

If there’s one thing guaranteed to make me angry, it’s investors hating on startups. I’ve been at Web Summit in Lisbon this week and I’ve heard quite a lot of it. Usually it’s investors talking to other investors, make a negative comment about a particular idea or rolling their eyes about a founder or a pitch they’ve heard before.

Usually they do it in private but it’s also become more common in public. I’ve noticed a rise in investors posting moans about founders disguised as ‘advice’ — but really they’re just being disrespectful to the people who make the tech industry anything at all.

Not all investors are alike of course. There was a dinner for VCs on Monday night in a spectacular venue in Lisbon and I got chatting with an investor from a firm that I respect. We commented on how privileged our position is. We get to see the firehose of positivity of founders as well as exposed to the future before most people and we get to play a small role in helping the best firms make it. It’s no surprise to me that everybody wants to start a fund. Investing is a huge amount of fun and even though it’s not a very reliable way to make money, it’s a unique opportunity to have an impact. And the chances are that you’ll learn a lot too.

I met with ten startups for Web Summit office hours this morning — they were all trying to do brilliant things. The founders were passionate about education, healthcare or improving the environment. I wasn’t the right person to help all of them, but I hope I was supportive and positive right back at them even if I couldn’t help directly.

We should never forget the whole tech for good sector (and tech sector more widely) is completely reliant on founders. They give up a huge amount with often very little reward. They take the biggest risks. They feel the heartache of failure most acutely. I think it’s our responsibility to be positive and supportive.

Less snark, more generosity. That’s what I’m hoping for.

Be more Don

Don is about 65, has an (almost) full head of hair and wears a silver grey suit and monogrammed shirt. His ring finger is swollen from the workout it gets from the weight of his gold ring. His old mechanical watch looks out of place next to his black plastic Fitbit on his wrist.

Don is not in this picture — it’s from an NHS Confederation conference in 2010. Some rights reserved.

Don is the guy who works the room at a conference, quietly and effectively making new friends. He does everything by the book and it works — the book being Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to make friends and influence people’.

Don is a nice guy. He’s learned his charisma and conference personality over many years. He approaches me confidently but not arrogantly. He holds my eye without being creepy. He introduces himself with a joke that sets me at ease. He tells me a little bit about himself — he’s from San Francisco, he runs a small investment fund. He asks about me and finds the things that link us professionally. He offers me an informational gift (there’s this cool company he came across that does something I might be interested in). He tells me he’s a great fan of London and lists off all the football stadiums he’s visited (Tottenham is his favourite team — he pronounces it with three syllables rather than two). I don’t have a business card but I write my contact details on a scrap of paper. He adds extra notes about what I do and how he might be able to help. As he does so I see the giant collection of cards of other friends he’s made.

I’m not a natural networker at events. While it feels like I’ve been fundraising for almost all my professional life, I’ve only intermittently enjoyed going along to conferences and trying to make new connections. I guess I’ve been burned a few times by the people who are almost territorial about particular events being their world. Then there are those who go to events with a mission and if you’re not on their list they’ll be dismissive at best and rude at worst. It’s also hard to butt into a group and introduce yourself. There’s always that existential risk of rejection. It’s like a teenage angst.

But over the years I’ve loosened up. I’ve learned that there are lots of people at conferences a bit like me. If you open up your body language, smile and say hello to the first person you make eye contact with, very little can go wrong. I still find big events stressful but I recognise that people like Don make those big events easier for people like me. Over the years I’d like to be more like Don.

(Don is not a real person, by the way)

Inner City Pressure


I’ve read a lot of new books this year but haven’t got round to writing up little reviews of them like I was doing last year. So I thought I might try and catch-up with posts about the standouts over the next few months.

The first is ‘Inner City Pressure: the story of grime’ by Dan Hancox. It might be the best book about 21st century politics in the UK that I’ve read.

The grime scene started in Bow, a mile or so away from where I live in East London. You can see the ‘three flats’ in the photo on the cover of the book from our window. The book is the story of grime from about 2003 through to the current day.

The headlines would have you believe that grime was just about gangs, guns and knives but it was also a creative outpouring about how badly politicians and the people who ran London at the time misjudged the impact of their policies on the lives of poor people (particularly poor black people) in East London. People in the grime scene were persecuted by the police, the city and politicians — in a way that was only thinly veiled racism.

The music was (and is) incredibly claustrophobic. Lots of the early lyrics focused on a few square miles around Roman Road and Bow. Dan Hancox contrasts it with the expansive, epic ‘Empire State of Mind’ by Jay-Z about New York which is full of wealth, bling and private jets. Grime is about what it feels like to have no hope of escape and Hancox thinks Dizzee Rascal called his album ‘Boy in Da Corner’ because he felt trapped. The urban music scenes in the US and UK scenes were very different. These days people from both scenes are multi-millionaires but the music came from very different places.

I remember going to grime nights in Shoreditch in 2005/6 and having no idea what was going on. Ten years later and some of the people who were there are some of the most successful artists in the UK music industry. Not only have they become successful themselves but they’ve changed the way the music industry is organised. Grime was about being an outsider and independent which meant that it took them ages to actually break through — as Hancox points out, grime wasn’t really commercially successful until 2016 (except for a few artists who had to morph their style to get mainstream acceptance). Now the independence that grime artists hung on to is much more the norm. The music industry has been transformed.

The book is a fantastic story of some of the people who hung on in there for over a decade while the music they loved gradually gained acceptance. Take Wiley who is interviewed throughout the book — you get the feeling he believed it it would be big from one day. He was always building up people, and helping out younger artists. There’s a hint of satisfaction in the later interviews with him, that a bunch of poor black teenagers from an estate in East London made their mark. You can’t help but root for him. Against the mainstream, against discrimination, against politics, against the police, their message finally made it — like he always knew it would.

Technology, networks and increasing returns

W. Brian Arthur (image from Wikimedia)

One of the people whose thinking has had the greatest impact on me is W. Brian Arthur, the complexity theorist and economist who did much of the original work on the economics of networks. Brian was very involved in the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico which for a while held a kind of mythical place in my mind — I read as much as I possibly could that came out of there as I realised that the work they had done was exactly what I was interested in. That led me to really try and understand the maths and techniques of network theory which has been an important part of lots of things I’ve worked on.

There’s a great podcast in the A16Z series at the moment of a conversation between Brian Arthur and Sonal Chokshi and Marc Andreessen from A16Z about what those papers he wrote in the 80s and 90s can teach us about the way that technology has developed and what it means for investment. Arthur argues that investing in technology companies is different from investing in other companies because of the interaction they have with network effects and the law of increasing returns (as opposed to diminishing returns in most markets). There are all kinds of reasons why particular tech firms end up dominating markets (Arthur’s shorthand for the combination of these is ‘luck’), but he argues that the overall phenomenon is inevitable and inescapable. Markets either become effective monopolies or they become commoditised — there’s very little middle ground in the medium to long term. Coincidentally this is why I think technology is so vital to impact investing. If impact investing were only to focus on markets that become commoditised, it would struggle to have a positive impact at scale and miss all the opportunities that new technologies present.

The podcast is well worth a listen and confirms my view of Brian Arthur as one of the most pertinent thinkers for the world we live in.

Doing nothing

Photo some rights reserved by Jes.

Following on from yesterday’s post on whether nation states make any sense in the twenty-first century and the tensions caused by working out what governments should do, I was struck by Tim Harford’s recent piece about whether we’d be better off letting politicians go on holiday for longer. His argument is that in many domains — from politics to investment, medicine to central banking — doing nothing is often better than intervening:

It is human nature to believe something must always be done. Yet we overrate our abilities to do it and it is awfully hard to make the case for passivity. The task is not made easier by campaigners wanting a policy, newspapers wanting a story or the patient wanting a pill. Who dares to offer them nothing?