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 still don’t really know why the Social Innovation Camp format works, but it does. Last weekend we had another great event up in Edinburgh with six teams of fantastic people all trying to take back-of-the-envelope ideas through to working prototypes that could become new social ventures.
The things that struck me this time about the experience were:
How much people learn about the issues — This tweet from Paolo of the Invisible Ramps team was pretty striking, but a lot of other people told me they’d been surprised how different it was building web or mobile tools when the people who are affected by the problem you’re trying to solve are there with you.
How it gives people confidence in their own abilities — a few people have said how surprised they were that they could pull off such a big task in the space of a weekend. We also have a pretty good track record of helping people rethink their own careers so they can actually do what we do at a Social Innovation Camp during the rest of the working week too.
How good some people are at facilitating and project managing in such an intense environment — herding cats in this particular environment is a very niche skill. It’s not like a single meeting but neither is it like longer term project management where you can use more complex tools. Some people are brilliant at it and it’s a joy to watch.
How difficult it is to do international link ups — this was the first weekend we’ve had where there were two Social Innovation Camps on at the same time — ours in Edinburgh and one in South Korea. I wish we’d been able to have more time chatting about what they were up to but the mixture of timezones and slightly dodgy sound systems and webcams meant we didn’t really get a proper chance. Here’s what they produced though.
Congratulations to all the teams. I had a lot of fun and I hope they did too. And thanks to all the people who enabled us to make it happen — we couldn’t do it without a lot of help.