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.
I’ve had a tough day with lots of difficult situations but I think I’ve managed to just about stay calm about everything.
There’s a good bit in Tim Ferriss’s embarrassingly titled Tools of Titans about how highly valuable a skill staying calm under pressure is. I’m not a military person at all but it’s apparently the defining feature of successful special forces commanders. The ability to step back and analyse a situation when all hell is breaking loose can be the difference between life and death for everyone under your command.
My BGV colleague Melanie once joked that I might be like a duck. Calm on the surface but paddling like hell under the water. Generally I am actually pretty calm — it’s not an act — but it is something that I’ve tried to learn how to do over time.
I guess my top tips for staying calm are:
Try to stop stressful situations from happening in the first place — put a lot of work into building relationships in a way that makes it unlikely people would fall out. I’m a strong believer that if it’s got to the point of an argument both sides have probably lost out.
Diffuse tension with humour if it does happen — if you can manage to make people take themselves a bit less seriously, they’ll take the situation a bit less apocalyptically. It’s almost certainly not as bad as they think.
When bad things do happen, think of it as an opportunity. The first thing to say to yourself is ‘good — this is something I’m going to be able to learn from’. Then step back and try and help people see the bigger picture first before trying to resolve the situation.
Meditation helps. If you can find time to practice when you do have time, you’ll reap the benefits in the times when you might not.
If you’re in startup life (or investment life for that matter), your ability to stay calm is not a bad thing to try and improve. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice.
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.
The tech for good world is growing fast and we’ve decided it’s time for the BGV team to grow too. Many of the ventures that we’ve invested in already are doing very well and each time we open applications for our accelerator programme we hear from more and more founders interested in starting a social venture that puts their skills to work on important social or environmental problems. We’ve also found there are more investors interested in putting their money to work to have a positive impact.
All this means that the opportunities for us to develop BGV get better and better and we need to grow our team to keep up with demand. Our aim is to become the best impact investor we possibly can and with that in mind we’re hiring for three new roles at BGV to help us get better at finding, investing in and supporting the best social ventures possible.
A Chief Investment Officer to lead our investment strategy and take overall responsibility for maximising positive social impact and investment returns
A Venture Adviser to join the team offering advice and support to the teams and ventures we invest in
A Team Organiser to keep everything running smoothly and handle the admin that comes with a growing organisation
If you click through to each role, you’ll find a more detailed description of what we’re looking for.
We’ve put all the applications on Applied, a startup currently sharing our offices at Ministry of Startups. Applied automatically disguises information that can be subject to subconscious biases so that reviewers can concentrate on what really matters: candidates’ strengths. This means every applicant is given the best chance of success, regardless of their background. We used it for our recent internship applications and were pretty impressed.
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!
We’re really just getting started with Bethnal Green Ventures. We believe that tech has the potential to massively change the world for the better, solving big problems in healthcare, education and sustainability to name a few. We believe that there’s no shortage of people out there who have the talent and desire to build the new tech startups to solve those problems and finally we believe that the capital to help them is out there, even if it’s perhaps not yet getting to the people who could do the most with it.
As we develop we want to get a lot better at what we do and we think it’s always good to aim for the stars. Hence the question in the post title — if you had a blank piece of paper, what would the perfect tech for good investor look like? What support would they provide? How would they provide it? How would they behave? Where would they be based? How would they know if they were successful?
Choosing who to work with is the most important decision in startup life. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s almost impossible to start something up on your own and so it really is worth spending time finding great people to work with very early on.
There will be no formal interviews, CV’s won’t be much use and head hunters are a no go. So if you don’t know who you want to work with straight away you should be asking friends to put you in touch with people who they think it’s worth you meeting to talk through the idea. You’ll know when somebody is keen from the first or second meeting but then you need to work with them for a while before you make a decision. ‘Hire slowly’ applies to finding co-founders too.
Things to look for in a co-founder
The shorthand for what you’re looking for in a co-founder is a startup mindset. It doesn’t mean that the person has worked in a startup before necessarily — it’s a state of mind that I’d say includes the following:
They have to be smart and get things done. One or the other won’t work — you need both.
They should have a cutthroat collaborative attitude — You’re looking for people who are brilliant at working with others, collaboration and communication should be their natural working state.
They should have a habit of bloody-mindedness — this might sound like the opposite of the above but what I really mean is tenacity in the face of adversity. At some stage things will go wrong and you don’t want them to lose interest.
Two other things I think you should look for in choosing a founding team:
People who are different to you — given the choice between two people to work with, often your instinct is to work with the person who is most like you. Over time that can make things difficult, especially as you all have to spread into learning new skills that are needed at different stages of startup.
Having said that, I would look for people who have a similar outlook on how other people (whether they’re investors, employees or office cleaners) should be treated. Sometimes this is known as the No Asshole Rule.
Some things you need to talk about
Once you have a co-founding team there are a series of things you need to talk about. Often it is just a case of knowing what people think. It’s not a question of making decisions there and then, just understanding where you’re all coming from and what you are trying to get out of the experience of starting a new venture.
Shares and ownership — people have very different views about shares and what they’re worth. You need to know how people think about the value of their founding stake.
Salaries — I’ve always tried to be open about what people get paid and keep it very even. You need to be honest with each other about your overall financial position and even your personal finances. Unless you’re a runaway overnight success there are going to be moments where money is very tricky and it’s much easier to prevent problems if you know where people stand.
Job titles and who does what — I hate job titles and avoided us deciding on them for a long time. There is a real problem with taking job titles and descriptions from bigger organisations as Steve Blank puts it here. I think my advice would be to avoid individual areas of responsibility for things that haven’t happened yet and develop a much more project and task orientated system of managing your time. There is probably one area where this isn’t true because you really need to have your head into it: investor relations. So you need a CEO.
Credit and profile — If you’re doing something interesting, you will get opportunities to get media coverage and profile and you need to decide how to deal with that because it can build up as a source of resentment. I guess this really comes down to being honest with each other about why you’re involved. It varies a lot more than I thought.
Timekeeping — there’s a line about the early days of Amazon in The Nudist on the Late Shift (which is a superb book about startup life) that says people came in about midday and left in the small hours and things were good. But when it comes to working in a tiny team which is what happens in the really early stages, I think you do need to keep regular hours — or at least predictable hours — because the best way of moving forward is to talk to one another and if you’re out of sync, you can lose valuable time.
All of those can be difficult conversations, but they’re definitely easier early on.