Big Tech malaise

I loved that the FT published a version of Cory Doctorow’s Marshall McLuhan Lecture in the FT Magazine. On the surface it seems so ‘unFT’ – both in style and approach – but it’s reflective of a lot of conversations I have with people in the tech and finance worlds.

They’re often called ‘Big Tech’ but the biggest tech firms aren’t just big, they’re ginormous – both in terms of their financial power and influence over our lives and politics. They’re Big with a capital B. And I don’t think it will last forever.

The backlash among activists and people in the industry has been going on for a while but as Cory points out, now the experience of users and customers (often advertisers) is getting worse and worse. At some point, people and Governments will break.

It strikes me that the moves by some of those large companies to do share buybacks and even (whisper it) pay dividends smacks of desperation. It’s a defensive play to prop up share prices for a bit longer and an admission that they’re not the best allocators of capital for innovation.

I think that leaves lots of space for new startups to create value in a more sustainable way. And if those startups learn what the current generation of giants forgot (that you need to be able to demonstrate that you have a positive impact on the world), then the future of tech is rosy. Those companies that success will still be big but not Big.

A campfire in the dark forest

When I posted that I’d started blogging again, Andy Thornton posted a link to an article he’s written called “Into the Woods…”. It’s a really interesting piece and made me pause to reflect.

I wondered why I stopped blogging and using social media so much a few years ago. In my head there were many reasons – a different routine, different responsibilities a lack of time and so on.

But one, if i’m honest was that I was scared.

The ‘woods’ in Andy’s title refers to the Dark Forest theory which I first came across in in Liu Cixin’s books. It’s one of the most unsettling ideas you’ll find in science fiction and was created to try to answer one of the oddest questions in astrobiology. In an infinite universe which we now know has plenty of other planets, there is a very strong probability of other intelligent life, so why haven’t we made contact with any? It’s called Fermi’s Paradox.

The Dark Forest theory says the reason for this is that intelligent civilisations keep quiet. In a dark forest you don’t want the really scary beasts to know where you are, or even that you exist.

Over the last decade the open web and social media seemed to become more full of scary beasts for me. As Andy puts it:

This state of mutual suspicion and caution towards exposure is also one with echoes in our wider contemporary zeitgeist, in which rational paranoia is increasingly becoming the default mindset.

I guess I became scared of putting ideas and opinions out there. Partly in case people were rude about them, but also because I felt the chances of things being misunderstood unless you made your writing ‘perfect’ had increased.

So what’s changed? The spectre of almost everything on the web being written by ChatGPT and the like somehow fired me up. The forest is about to get much denser and darker.

It made me want to fight back and start to share things again. After all, the other way of looking after yourself in a dark forest, isn’t to hide, but to light a campfire. To do something that the scary beasts don’t understand.

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.

Tech for Good LPs

A different kind of LP…

It makes me really angry to see bad behaviour in the tech industry. Over the past year, there’s been seemingly unending stream of sexism, sexual harassment, bullying, and alleged fraud. Each time a new story comes out I want to scream — tech has so much potential but it will go to waste if people like this are allowed to shape the future of the industry.

One of the only good things to come out of the last couple of months is that a few investors in venture capital funds (normally known as Limited Partners or LPs) have spoken out in a way that I haven’t seen before. I was really heartened to see Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein take a stand — they did so with Uber (a direct investment) and then they did the same with 500 Startups (where they were LPs). It was the first time I think I’ve seen such a public, progressive, activist move from an LP — I think that’s a great sign and I wish more investors would do it. In general LPs don’t say anything about their investments, even to the extent of not really admitting where their money is invested, but venture capital is where the seeds of culture and behaviour are sown and LPs could have a huge influence.

We’re very lucky at Bethnal Green Ventures that all our LPs (Big Society Capital, Nesta and Nominet Trust) have invested in us because they want to see technology used for a positive social purpose and done so to the highest ethical standards. We’ve written it into our governing documents and they take a keen interest in all the decisions we make. We love having LPs who are there to keep us on our toes in terms of our mission and who will let us know very quickly if they feel we’re not living up to their expectations. Of course they’re ambitious for us financially as well.

I think this kind of tech for good LP should be the norm not the exception. Only that way will we change the tech industry down the line and break the biases and bad behaviour we’ve seen in the tech industry of late.

The Invention of Air — rainy days and optimism

Invention of Air

About this time last year I went on a little day-trip to Birmingham with my friend Steven Johnson. It was grey and miserable and we had to go and buy umbrellas from Boots to keep dry. It was a fantastic day though.

We were on the trail of Joseph Priestly tracking down the places he hung out for Steven’s book The Invention of Air

which is out today in the UK and is very, very good. I think you’ll hear quite a lot about it next week on the radio and in the papers and so on. Steven is also doing a number of talks including this one at Nesta on Monday.

The thing that got me was Steven’s description of Priestly as a relentless optimist. And when you look at all the things he did you can’t help but be impressed. There’s something about him that just makes you smile.

Opening up an idea —

I put this idea into the 4iP call for ideas but they turned it down (maybe because I’m supposed to be running one of their portfolio investments 😉 ) so I thought I’d just put it out there to see if anybody was interested in taking it on or helping out…

Starting a political party should be as easy as setting up a company. Innovation in politics is more likely to come from a new entrant than from the main established parties.

Needs and Benefits

Membership of the main UK political parties has steadily declined since the 1970s. Disaffection with parties and politicians is at an all time high. Yet despite this, the big parties have hardly changed their structure since being formed in the 19th and 20th centuries (see for background on the slow demise of political parties in the UK and internationally).

Rather than focusing on getting more people to join the existing parties, PartyStarter will encourage and help people to set up their own political parties. It is based on the belief that innovation in the way that parties organise and operate is more likely to come from new ‘start-up’ parties than from existing parties.

While it’s unlikely that any of the parties it creates will win at the next general election, there are an increasing number of elections that are winnable by smaller parties in local, regional and European elections. And there is a small chance that PartyStarter might create a party that grows quickly and can seriously compete with the main parties at the general election after next.

PartyStarter satisfies the need of people who want to make a difference to the political system but don’t have faith in the main political parties. It will show that political apathy is because Westminster village politics is out-of-date and not because people don’t care about political issues.


It actually only costs £150 to register a political party with the Electoral Commission but the process is difficult to understand and the reporting burden grows in complexity as a party raises more money and has more candidates.

Inspired by sites that make company formation easy and understandable such as, will take you through the process step-by-step with help at each stage and automatically generate the official forms and paperwork needed for the Electoral Commission.

Once a party is registered, PartyStarter will then help you find digital tools to administer and organise your party. Whether that’s blogging or twitter, or, PartyStarter will introduce people who may not be familiar with the web to powerful but low-cost tools so that they can innovate in the way they campaign and organise.

We’re looking for £20,000 from 4iP to create a not-for-profit company, build the technology and hire a project co-ordinator/researcher/troublemaker for six months in the run up to the general election in 2010. This period will be a perfect time to launch as media interest in politics and public ‘apathy’ will be high.


Once the site is built, the costs of will be low. The code for the site will be open-sourced allowing volunteers to help improve it and people in other countries to adapt it for their own systems.

There is the opportunity to grow some affiliate relationships with the necessary services for a political party — legal, accounting and banking — with PartyStarter taking a share of the revenue (this is how company formation sites often make money). This could be part of a a paid package to cover all the administration of a political party.

Overall though, the strategy for sustainability will be to keep costs as low as possible.

Competition is currently the only site that offers help registering a political party in the UK. PartyStarter will offer a much simpler service cutting through the jargon of political administration.

There’s magic in the Hello

Name badges

Lovely piece by Scott Heiferman and Jeremy Heinmans in the run up to the inauguration event tomorrow about the name badges Meetup are giving out to the crowd. Certainly rings true for the Meetups I’ve been involved with.

There’s magic in the Hello, and the humble name tag functions as a kind of permission to connect in a suspicious world. We’ve seen that magic in over a million Meetups. People use the internet ( to get off the internet and organize community around something important to them — whether that’s getting advice in running a small business or fighting for gay rights or supporting each other through health struggles.

More here.

“Representative democracy was based on the idea that people are thick”

Us Now

I went along to see Us Now on Wednesday and I like it a lot — and not just because it’s got me in it!

The funny thing about being on camera is that you sometimes come out with things you didn’t know you were going to say. In Us Now I surprised myself when I said, “Representative democracy was based on the idea that people are thick. That’s just not the case.”

Now I do believe exactly that, but I’d never thought about it in that way until I said it. To be a bit more nuanced, I don’t believe that representative democracy is going to disappear but I do think it will change. It was one of the things I was trying to get across in the piece I wrote with Tom for the FT Magazine. The infrastructure of representative democracy, which in the UK is really political parties, is struggling far more than people recognise. I don’t think it would take much for any of the political parties to collapse very quickly because alternative ways of organising and financing are very close to having the same efficiency as parties.

As I say in the film I think the really interesting stuff will happen around the edges of government where people use digital tools to organise themselves to deliver services better than institutional government can. The film is full of examples of people doing just that.

I’m not sure what the plan is for distribution of the film but if you get a chance to see it, it’s well worth a watch.