Gadgets I’ve had for a while — Fairphone

When we first met Bas, Miquel and the team at Fairphone on Skype for their BGV interview a little over two years ago, we couldn’t quite work out whether they were mad. They were working at the Waag Society and had become experts in the negative impacts of the mobile phone industry. From the conflict exacerbated by the minerals in the electronics through to the conditions of the workers who put them together and the designed in obsolescence and failures to consider proper recycling, it was obvious that your standard iPhone or other mobile was not good. The problem was that when they had tried to campaign and lobby the industry they hadn’t got very far. They told us they’d come to the conclusion that the only way to change the industry was to design, manufacture and sell their own phone.

Fifteen months after they left BGV, they delivered their first handsets. Mine was one of them and I’ve had it for eight months now. When it arrived it was a bit ropey to be honest. It would crash pretty often and you’d find yourself running out of space for apps and media because the file system was idiosyncratic to say the least. It could also get you very lost as the GPS was shocking.

But the latest couple of software updates seem to have fixed all that. GPS is much better (it works fine with Runkeeper and Google Maps which are the two main things I use with GPS) and the storage problem has been fixed with the ‘Unified storage upgrade’ which does away with the false distinction that Android had between ‘phone’ and ‘internal’ storage. Battery life is excellent and I love the fact it uses the same charger as most of my other devices. The screen and camera are also very good and dual SIM is a genuinely useful feature.

So beyond the initial niggles it’s a good phone but that’s not really the point. Fairphone is more than a phone. It’s a symbol of how a small team can show up a huge industry and prove that there’s demand for something they’d rather ignore. If you want to show that you care about where your electronics come from and how they’re made you can buy a Fairphone now. As I write this there are about 14,000 of the current batch left.
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The BGV house rules

Today is one of my favourite bits of BGV — Day 1 of Week 1 when all the new teams come in to start their three months with us. This will be the fifth cohort of BGV so we’re up to 42 teams supported over the past two and half years. One of the things we try to do in the first week is create a safe, collaborative space for the teams to help one another and this time we’ve written down a few house rules for the first time.

  1. Everything that happens at BGV stays at BGV. We want everyone here to feel this is a space in which they can share successes and failures without fear of them being splattered all over twitter. A huge part of the value we offer at BGV is the cohort’s ability to trust each other and collaborate, so please respect each other’s confidentiality.
  2. Ask for help as often as possible. Over the next three months the BGV team, our mentors and the rest of the cohort are here to help you as much as possible. But we can’t help if you don’t ask, so don’t be shy!
  3. No Arsehole Rule. Treat everyone with equal respect irrespective of age, race, gender or ability. Don’t exploit people’s goodwill and desire to help. Always try and find solutions rather than problems.
  4. Be generous. This is kind of the flipside of “always ask for help” — we think the best way to build a community that can really make a difference is for us to work together, so please be generous, it makes everything more fun.
  5. And on that last point, make sure you have fun! Doing a startup is hard, there are lots of late nights, difficult decisions and stressful times but it is really important not to let this overtake your life, going to the pub is very important (as are weekends) — don’t forget!

The FLII Circus

I don’t do many talks because I find most conferences a bit boring but every now and then I get invitations that are too good to refuse. This week I’ve been in beautiful Mexico at the FLII conference for impact investors in Merida, Yucatan.

It’s my first time in Mexico and I’ve found it really interesting to learn what’s going on here. The economy is beginning to bloom partly as a result of manufacturing becoming more expensive in China but also because a generation of young Mexicans educated around the world have begun to return (this Time article from last week goes into some of the political changes).

FLII was interesting just for the contrast with the impact investing community in Europe. There are similarities of course but I’ve never been to any events in Europe with quite the same energy or warmth. It was also great to meet people from Smart Impact in Mexico and Pipa in Brasil. Both do similar things to BGV but with important local differences. In my main presentation I talked about some of the ventures we’ve supported and then 10 principles for early stage impact investing which we try to hold ourselves to. The slides are here and if the talk video gets posted I’ll link to it.

My heartfelt thanks to the teams at CO_, New Ventures and Picnic for inviting me. It’s been an amazing week.

Bethnal Green Ventures: Class of Summer 2013


We’re very proud of all the 2013 BGV teams. Last Thursday was our public Demo Day and they all did a fantastic job of explaining why what they are doing is important and why they’re the right people to do it. The audience certainly seemed to be impressed and there’s been a lot of follow up. A huge thank you to all the teams, funders, mentors and supporters as well as the BGV team of Lily, Laura and Glen for helping to make it all happen.
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London Tech for Good Meetup

Well that went pretty well. Last night we opened the doors to the Tech for Good London Meetup and 150 people showed up. There’s been a lot of Tech for Evil news over the past few weeks so it was heartening to hear some stories of people doing useful things. As well as launching the next BGV call for ideas, we heard from five startups:

  • Echo (previously Hackney Shares) — bringing businesses-to-business time banking to the UK to improve the links between companies and their local communities
  • Winnow Solutions — measuring and minimising food waste
  • Open Sensors (from Atomic Data Labs) — sensors in the home to help older people live independently for longer
  • Speakset — tackling loneliness through simple video calling for older people
  • Flip Yourself — helping young people show their skills by using their social networks

What was also interesting was how indistinguishable in business terms some of the pitches were from non-social startups. Winnow Solutions won Seedcamp last week with their pitch about resource efficiency and Speakset gave a very convincing argument about older people being the biggest business opportunity of the next 20 years.

At the end of the evening we opened it up for people to give plugs for funding schemes or events coming up and there were plenty of those too. It does feel like something is happening around this in London. Long may it continue.

Many thanks to Lily for making it all happen, Eze at Google Campus for hosting us, and our speakers for telling us about their ideas.
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Cleanweb gathering pace

I went along to the London CleanWeb meetup last night which according to a visitor from San Francisco was quite a lot bigger than the one over there. It doesn’t surprise me. We get lots of great BGV applications for startups trying to use digital tech to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and I’m hoping for many more when applications open next week. Listening to the talks last night it seemed to me there are a few areas where we might see lots of innovation over the next few years:

  • Connected devices — everything from Nest through to internet enabled fridges. The point of devices being connected is generally to optimise them. Nesta’s Dynamic Demand Challenge is also interesting here.
  • Data science — taking the huge amounts of data created in energy systems and finding insights that enable efficiency improvements. Examples include EcoFactor and Bidgely.
  • Behaviour feedback — hardware is only part of the system, humans are the other part. Tech that helps people improve their energy behaviour includes things like Shutdown Scanner or oPower.
  • Marketplaces — when you start looking at electricity, one of the most striking features is how centralised in is. The ‘big six’ have a huge (and deeply conservative) effect on any improvement. It’s not a sustainable situation and will almost certainly be disrupted over the coming years. That’s why we’ve backed Open Utility and I expect others to find ways of using marketplaces to reduce emissions.

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Cakes and computers — remembering LEO

Google very kindly invited all the new BGV teams over to their London HQ yesterday evening for a ‘Celebration of the UK’s Computing Heritage’ which was great fun. We got to hear from many of the people who brought the internet into the world both from the US (Vint Cerf, one of the creators of TCP/IP) as well as the teams at the National Physical Laboratory and UCL in the UK.

I think my favourite story though was that of LEO or the Lyons Electronic Office which was the world’d first business computer back in 1951. Many of the team that built it were there last night and they justifiably got a standing ovation.

BGV Summer 2013

Today is a pretty exciting day for me as it’s day 1 of the Bethnal Green Ventures programme. Over the next three months we’ll be working very closely with the ten teams who made it through our selection process and trying to help them get off to the best possible start. It’s very early days for all of them so we can’t say too much publicly about what they’re all up to but this list gives you a hint or two:

  • Benkyo Player — making educational video subtitles searchable
  • Commonplace — generating user-centred neighbourhoods and cities
  • Fluency— equipping young people with digital skills
  • KNRYÂ — saving lives in the emergency services
  • Open Utility — enabling peer to peer energy trading
  • Playlab London — building game to help sufferers manage the effects of panic attacks
  • See What I Mean — a communication tool for people with dementia
  • Savvify— empowering and exciting hard to reach groups about technology
  • Trackwall — educational and immersive games for school children.
  • WriteLaTeX — a complete cloud based approach to scientific publishing

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Designing things well

Peter Day’s podcast is another cracker this week. Admittedly he mainly interviews people I know so I might be a bit biased but the underlying message is an important one — the way you design things matters. Ben and the team at GOV.UK get a deservedly big shout out for their win at the Design of the Year awards.

We put quite a lot of design thinking into BGV. We started with a clear idea about who our users were (very talented small teams of committed people coming out of hack weekends or similar), we analysed their needs (a small amount of finance, connections to expertise and a supportive community) and then we built a prototype (in 2010 in Bethnal Green) and iterated it.

It’s strange to think that so many schemes for startups aren’t designed that way.
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Our ordinary investments

We’re going through induction for the next cohort of BGV teams at the moment, part of which is sorting out the paperwork around our investment. A few months ago there was a bit of chat online about ‘handshake deals’ rather than complex legal contracts. Fred Wilson particularly would rather things were simple:

We negotiate a sophisticated set of documents when we invest in a company and for the most part, those documents never come into play. Many times when things go badly, we rip up the documents and decide what to do based on an honest discussion among the interested parties. When things go well, all we need are the stock certificates.

We get a few questions at BGV about why we make investments in the way that we do. Especially because we’re ‘social’ which means there are a whole range of options to choose from such as loans, revenue participation agreements or even social impact bonds.

We make £15,000 equity investments based on receiving 6% of the ordinary (sometimes known as founders’) shares in the company. We don’t ask for any preference or special rights. We don’t ask for a seat on the board. We don’t even ask the founders to draw up a shareholders’ agreement with us. The paperwork is still a bit fiddly but we try to make it as easy as possible for the teams.

Why do we do it that way? Firstly it’s the simplest and if things go well for our startups, things will get very complicated with later stage investors if we mess around. But secondly we do it because it feels right. Once we hand over the money, we have very little say over what the teams do with it. However our incentives are exactly the same as the founders because we have exactly the same type of shares as they do.

David Lee writes that ‘investors are not your friends’ and he’s right. I like his analogy of us being like fans. We’ll stick with our startups through thick and thin but that doesn’t stop us from having opinions about how they should go about getting to the top of the league. Fundamentally we’re on the same side.