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.
The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis is the story of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, the two Israeli psychologists who created a whole new discipline — behavioural economics — and in doing so, changed the way we think about thinking.
The book starts in a strange place — with a basketball game and links the reason for Lewis writing the book back to a previous best-seller of his — Moneyball. That was all about the use of statistics in baseball by the Oakland A’s coach Billy Bean who beat the system by choosing to look at things that the big teams missed when making his draft picks or transfers from other teams. He looked for value rather than assuming that because somebody was a big hitter they would be the best player. It worked of course and now the rest of sport has cottoned on to it — ‘moneyball’ is the dominant approach in a lot of professional sport. When Lewis was reading the reviews of the book somebody said that the book was great but that it was something that was already known in psychology and economics because of the work of Kahneman and Tversky. Lewis had never heard of them but soon started to find out more.
Tversky died in 1996 well before Lewis started writing the book but Kahneman took part in interviews as did many of their collaborators over the years. The key to the story though is something Lewis never saw, the relationship between the two men and that’s what the book is about. Lewis tries to get to the core of why these two people were able to question so much that had gone unquestioned before. Both admitted that it wasn’t something they would have come up with on their own but they were an unlikely couple save for the fact that they were both Israeli psychologists and bumped into each other at the University of Michigan in the 1960s.
The book does explain most of their work but you can get that from Kahneman’s excellent summary Thinking Fast and Slow. What it tries to dig deeper into the creative partnership and how it worked. Strangely an academic interviewed them both about it in the 1970s as part of a book about creative double-acts. Tversky and Kahneman claimed they didn’t know themselves but admitted there was a hint of competition about it. Ultimately they fell out over the way that the profile and plaudits were shared. Tversky’s outgoing personality meant that he was the most in demand and Kahneman felt slighted by that. In the end it was Tversky’s illness and impending death at the age of 59 that brought them back together.
It is an amazing story but one you wouldn’t think could make a good book (or a movie, although you can bet after Moneyball and The Long Short there will be one), but it does. It’s a wonderful exploration of the relationship between two incredible people and how that relationship changed the world.
The phrase ‘tech for good’ seems to be resonating with more and more people as a shorthand for using technology to purposefully address social or environmental problems. It’s not just about use of technology by existing not-for-profits (although that can be part of it and Netsquared/Techsoup have done a fantastic job of promoting that), it’s also about doing new things using technology including for-profit ventures that aim to benefit millions of people and deliver returns to impact investors.
Meetups have become a really important gathering point and place where people can find co-founders and investors and bounce ideas around. In the UK there are already Tech for Good Meetup groups in Bristol, Cambridge, London, Manchester and Sheffield and I know people are thinking of setting them up in other parts of Europe too. At BGV we’re really interested in helping the movement grow, so if you know of groups you think we should know about please add them here or if you’re interested in starting one, also let me know and we’ll see if we can help.
There are many great things about working at BGV. There’s watching our later stage teams reach millions of users, watching the founders grow as leaders and people, celebrating as teams raise money along the way, bringing new impact investment into their businesses. There’s working with teams during the accelerator programme as the figure things out and test their assumptions. There’s the moment when we say ‘yes’, helping people realise that there might just be something in that idea they had and that we believe in it just as much as they do.
But my particular favourite part is when we open up applications and say to the world — how can we help you turn your idea into reality? It’s a bit like turning on a firehose of positivity — we love all the people getting in touch and coming along to our Q&A events or drop-ins. It’s a huge amount of fun because we get to meet people who are totally passionate about social or environmental problems and talk through their ideas. We can’t invest in them all but we try to be as helpful as we can even if there isn’t a fit between what we’re looking for and what people are working on.
So what are we looking for? Well, generally we’re best suited to helping idea or prototype stage companies run by a small team of people who really understand a particular social or environmental problem. The idea will have the potential to benefit millions of people and generate real financial value by addressing a problem in health, education, sustainability or democracy. We’re interested in ideas that nobody has done before and we’ll be thinking about how the idea could be protectable as well. Is there a moat that could make this venture the one that wins when other people realise it’s a good idea and try to copy it?
We like teams (ie more than just one person) who are able to show us that they really work well together and bring the best out in each other. We’re looking for people who are super ambitious but have a willingness to listen to feedback and recognise when their assumptions are wrong They are always ready to get out of the office and talk to people to find out what they really want. They’re absolutely committed to addressing the problem they’ve set out to solve and are driven by that strong urge of ‘this needs to change’ no matter what obstacles people put in your way.
Starting a tech for good venture is hard. We know that and we’re complete fans of the people who set out to do it. We spend all our time with them and can’t help but have a sense of awe about their drive and energy in the face of almost constant knock-backs. But when it goes right, there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing something that you built positively benefiting other people.
What I love about our call for ideas is meeting people who are at that ‘just an idea’ stage and helping them work out whether it could be something that really does positively change the world and improve peoples’ lives.
So if you’ve got an idea to solve a social or environmental problem using technology, don’t hesitate to get in touch. We’ll help in whatever way we can.
My second ‘book a week’ of the year was ‘Start With Why’ by Simon Sinek. It’s linked to one of the most viewed TED talks of all time which I watched after reading the book (I’m not sure which came first — the book or the talk).
My short review would be ‘watch the talk rather than read the book’. I ploughed through it but didn’t enjoy it much. It’s very repetitive and the tone of voice is a bit grating. There’s no elegance to the writing compared to Black Box Thinking which I read the week before.
Digging a bit deeper into why I didn’t like it, I think it’s because when you work in the tech for good world, everyone starts with why. All the founders we work with have a social purpose and if they need convincing they should start with why, you’ve got something to worry about.
The strange thing is that Sinek often talks about companies that he says focus on the why but doesn’t say what their reason is for existing. I don’t disagree with the examples — Southwest Airlines, Apple, Microsoft are all good companies — but he doesn’t say what their real social ‘why’ is. It’s all a bit vague. Southwest is about letting people travel more. Apple is somehow about creativity. Microsoft about ‘a PC on every desk’. But the why of all those companies is much more dominated by ‘to make money’ than any real social purpose.
The other section of the book that I didn’t like was the one about mixing ‘why’ and ‘how’ . It’s very muddled. Sinek seems obsessed with the idea that the charismatic leader who defines the why can’t be involved in the how. Walt Disney needed his brother Roy. Steve Jobs needed Steve Wozniak. Maybe that was the case for those companies but it’s not a universal principle. The idea that as a ‘visionary’ you can just ignore all the practicalities and hand those over to someone else is a bit 20th century.
Of course you should start with why. I wholeheartedly believe that the world of business is gradually shifting to that conclusion but I don’t think this is the book you should read to help you on the journey.
I’ve really upped the amount of time I spend listening to podcasts over the last twelve months. I think it’s partly that the quality and variety of what’s available has increased but it’s also displaced reading articles on the web as a lot of the sites and publications I used to read have become more aggressively advertising heavy and/or are surrounded by a toxic culture of debate that puts me off.
These are my five favourite podcasts at the moment:
BBC’s The Documentary — some of the best and most diverse stories from across the BBC World Service and their partners in other countries. Regularly updated and each episode is usually 30 mins.
Conde Nast Traveler’s Travelogue — I love to travel and the podcast is much more down to earth than the rather glitzy magazine. There are some genuinely useful tips and great recommendations for places to go.
Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics Radio — each episode is so well researched and scripted. It always leaves me with lots to think about.
The Reboot Podcast with Jerry Colonna — long interviews bordering on therapy sessions between Jerry and tech founders or investors. The quality varies based a bit on who the guest is but there are some gems in there.
How I Built This — interviews with founders of some (now) well known companies. Reminds me very much of the ‘founder confidential’ talks we run for BGV.
A couple of weeks ago, I hosted a panel of BGV founders at the South London Tech Meetup and asked them — “where did the idea for your social venture come from?”.
It turned out that each founder had a story that matched one of the three sources of inspiration I’ve heard other people talk about so, as it’s also BGV applications season, I thought I’d write a little bit about them.
The first type of inspiration is frustration. Mark from Konnektis explained how when his grandfather was ill and needed care he was amazed to see how inefficiently the various people involved in domiciliary care communicated with one another. This frustration with the status quo and a completely obvious (to Mark at least) technology-based solution made him want to start the business.
Secondly, there’s the combination of two seemingly unconnected ideas. For Natalie from Walacea this was the realisation that two things she was super interested in — scientific research and crowdfunding — hadn’t yet been brought together. When she realised that there could be value in the combination, Walacea was a obvious innovation that needed to exist.
Finally there’s chemistry when inspiration for a venture comes from two or more people coming together in conversation. For Dan from Firesouls that happened by meeting a co-founder with a very different background to him who listened to the problem he described and then played it back based on his way of thinking. The resulting idea could never have come about without both of their perspectives — neither person had the whole story.
Most of the tech for good founder stories I know fit into these three categories or are combinations of them. If I’ve missed something please do let me know. But if you’re looking to start a venture, there is something else you can do — be open to talking with others about it.
The title of this post is a blatant rip-off of Steven Johnson’s excellent book ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’ in which he looks at the origins of thousands of inventions and ideas that have changed our society. He dispels the myth that inventions come from secretive labs or lone geniuses — instead he argues that “chance favours the connected mind”, most great ideas come from connecting existing ones and that the network age gives us more opportunities than ever before to build on ideas and create new ones.
Speaking of which, if you have a great idea for a tech for good venture, applications for BGV Autumn 2016 are now open!