Big bets on big ideas

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Big bets on big ideas – by philanthropists ‘Problem first, tool second’ is a maxim that is common among philanthropists, but far from common in the startup world.

We celebrate the fast growing entrepreneurial culture, but too many startups are ‘noddy projects’, built on exploiting little more than convenience or alacrity; often led by people with scant knowledge or experience of management or about the sector which they aim to enter and its customers.

Many fewer are the enterprises that start by identifying major needs or opportunities and building a business to fulfil them. Among these are the Young Foundation in the UK, which has long supported social enterprises, and Village Capital in New York, which has raised funds and then used them to bring experts to bear on major world problems.

But also there are individuals who have made millions and then sought to use their wealth to attack these problems, such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Do their approaches tell us anything about how we could address bigger issues and address them better?

What is common to most of them is that they aim to use the high level of their own expertise with which they have achieved their own success, and do so in wider, more beneficial fields where the returns are not necessarily financial.

Soon after Dustin Moskovitz, a Facebook co-founder, and his wife began their philanthropy five years go, they partnered with a charity research organisation called Give Well, that identifies projects that ‘provide outsize human benefits for the dollars invested’, through which they gave substantial sums, inter alia to a programme for distributing mosquito nets to reduce malaria, and to a programme that gives cash directly to poor people in Kenya and Uganda. More recently they have chosen to fund projects that mitigate potential global catastrophes, like an epidemic of a deadly disease, biological warfare and the dangers posed by artificial intelligence.

‘Tech people tend to be more interested in early-stage startups’, said one expert, ‘they typically support disruptive new ideas, get more involved in their giving and show a willingness to move quickly to another approach when one fails.’

Zuckerberg and his wife (who is a doctor) chose to invest funds in efforts to build basic tools to help the whole scientific community to make breakthroughs in research. A substantial sum went to create a new research institute in San Francisco – the ‘Biohub’, whose first project was to map all the cells in the body and set up a rapid strike force to tackle outbreaks of infectious diseases like Ebola and Zika viruses.

And they aim to advocate for more private money for this purpose, and will ‘likely take ownership stakes in for-profit companies doing promising work.’ Their multipronged approach – gifts, VC investments in businesses with social missions, and policy advocacy is described as ‘giving them maximum flexibility’.

Pierre Omidyar , founder of the eBay online auction and retail site, was an early pioneer of this concept. His philanthropic organisation focused on efforts to bring financial services to underserved populations. It financed a non-profit that makes microloans in Africa, Asia and Haiti; and it has invested in a peer-to-peer lender and in a company that provides insurance to low-income people in emerging markets. He participates in an advocacy group that partners with governments and others to encourage the distribution of money digitally instead of through cash handouts. ‘We have a motto here: problem first, tool second’, said the managing partner of his Foundation – an approach ‘widely adopted by the region’s philanthropists’.

The Omidyar Foundation which focuses on early-stage projects, also takes board seats and provides networking opportunities and training to the organisations it finances. ‘Half of the organisations report that our non-monetary assistance is as valuable as our monetary assistance’, says the managing partner.

Measuring success ‘is a bit of a fool’s errand’, he has said; but proactive, they are. At all events, principles like that of focusing on underfunded yet highly effective charities seem to remain paramount. So far we have rarely seen comparable individuals or organisations in the for-profit field.

Source: New York Times, 8.11.2016

John Whatmore, January, 2017

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Action Learning: I meet a programme leader

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Action Learning – I meet a programme leader

Regular group meetings feature in many recent development programmes for SMEs, so I asked an expert on Action Learning: what is it; what is its magic; how does it work; where does it take place; who manages it; and what are its credentials?

What is Action Learning?

It is an intimate process in which people who want to get things done come together to support and help each other:

  • to clarify individual’s goals;
  • to benefit from the ideas of others in determining how to tackle obstacles;
  • and commit each other to progress towards objectives.

It is for people who come together on their own authority, whose decisions have significant consequences, and who are committed to this kind of process.

(Prospective candidates need to understand what it will be like, to have met one another, and to commit to a number of days for its meetings.)

What is its essence?

It is a way of helping people who are inspired by working with others to resolve their problems, to make use of challenge and support in equal measure, and to do things differently. It aims to draw on the personal experience and insights of other people whose fields of interest/activity are similar but different, in order to help you in your way forward. (It is on a completely different plane to a board or committee meeting.)

“It empowers you to play at a higher level.”

What happens at meetings?

Getting in the right mood (‘How do you feel to-day?’ ‘What has happened in your world since we last met?’) is the launch point for the day; then everyone has a slice of time in which to air a big issue that is bugging them and elicit the thoughts and ideas about it from the others. (Members will have given thought in advance to how they want to use their slice of time, which will include talking about how things have gone since the previous meeting of the group.)

They share their current objectives – problems or opportunities – and invite help from the knowledge and experience of the others (‘ruthlessly, compassionate with one another’); and aim to clarify thoughts and to identify plans. (And at the end of the day, they reflect in the same frame of mind on the process.)

“Support from another planet!”

How does it work?

Groups meet regularly – every several weeks (people from different organisations commonly meet every four to six weeks) – often enough to maintain the unity and commitment of the group, but not so often as to interfere with people’s jobs. ‘It is like losing an arm if one person fails to turn up.’

Where do meetings take place?

They usually meet in a relaxing space, for a day at a time, and each time in a different location – often on the premises of different members of the group (or in locations that are of common interest to the members eg a research organisation or an innovative developer, with a tour during the day.)

How is the process managed?

Someone – sometimes a member of the group – handles the organisation, prepares and/or circulates material, arranges the day’s happenings, leads the process, and articulates the plans that members have concluded, as well as the group’s decisions.

What are its credentials?

Professor Reg Revans first formulated the process in the 1940s, drawing on his experience of scientific method, and put it to use in the Coal Board, where substantial increases on productivity were attributed to it; and it found applications later in the Health Service. It has only rarely featured in academic work on management.

Lately, Growth Builder programmes (like the Judge Institute programme and the UCL/RBS programme, and others) have made use of its techniques (which could also be beneficial in incubators) – especially in terms of drawing from other people’s experience, perhaps because collaboration is increasingly valued in a disruptive world.

John Whatmore, November, 2016

 

Support for leadership and growth – in charities

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Leadership and Growth in SMEs

‘ella forums’ is a leadership development programme designed to inspire growth in social enterprises, in which Chief Executives come together for monthly sessions, where they hear the latest thinking from guest speakers, share best practice, and receive coaching from experts.

Where ‘Scaleup UK’, the recent Barclays Report on ‘Growing businesses, growing our economy’ focuses on the will and ambition to grow, it can be argued that that comes down to leadership. ella forums is a leadership development programme for social enterprises and their growth.

Members from the same area come together in groups of 10-12, for a monthly meeting, (to which they commit for 12 months). The meetings are designed to give each individual the tools and support they need to help their organisation develop and grow. The approach is based on learning from experts and from each other, combined with more personal one-on-one support from a coach.

The session is run in two parts. In the first part, an expert talks about their field and how it is relevant to the member’s issues. In the second part, the group discusses in a confidential and non-judgmental setting any issues participants may be facing, to help them resolve problems.

Participants also receive coaching from someone with the right skills and knowledge to address issues and support progress (selected by the group’s chair).

There are monthly evaluations as well as an annual Social Value Report by which the impact of the programme can be evaluated.

‘ella forums’ was set up in 2013 as a Community Interest Company (CIC) – a limited company for community benefit. In June 2014, a partnership was announced, unique in the social sector – with GrowthAccelerator, the service backed by the government and private enterprise and designed to help SMEs to grow, but the government terminated its support for that entire programme in 2016.

ella has been growing and now has fifteen groups in various locations across the country and expects to add ten more in the coming year. Following a 6-month pilot, the Lloyds Bank Foundation recently announced plans to open groups in partnership with ella for beneficiary charities across the country, of which there are expected to be an additional ten.

ella has also set up groups of different kinds: one group for emerging leaders; one group with both charity leaders and corporate leaders; and one is planned specifically for start-up and pre start-up organizations.

ACEVO (the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations) runs similar CEO Forums for members – to network, gain peer support and hear from specialist speakers on the issues that affect them (such as leadership, governance, personal effectiveness, leading through change and managing the workforce). The forums are round table meetings with a limited number of places available, but these forums do not have regular memberships.

See also: The latest support programmes for SMEs http://wp.me/p3beJt-gB

John Whatmore, November, 2016

Putting early emphasis on the exit route

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Putting early emphasis on the exit route Trade sales make for good prices, but they take more work and more understanding of buyers’ businesses and their motives.

It may be no surprise that the prices paid by buyers of private businesses reflect what as buyers they can make out of the business rather than its book value.

Analysis of their work by BCMS, the largest seller in the UK of private businesses shows that by far the main reasons for acquiring a business is that it represents a new service, skill or technology, a new customer base, or a geographical expansion. Financial investment is very rarely the reason.

Moreover, buyers are rarely to be found among competitors and businesses in the same field; they tend to be from adjacent fields, and making unexpected synergies with the seller.

The nostrums that they offer are two: get competing buyers into the ring, and look at the value of your business in terms of what the buyer is likely to be able to make of it, rather than its historical value.

BCMS’s approach is to spend a substantial research effort in finding possible candidates – often up to a couple of hundred, and then sifting through them to arrive at a small number of serious contenders, before inviting bids. The lowest bids tend to be around a conventional multiple of profit, and the highest as much as two and a half times greater.

If these morsels of wisdom are applied to the field of early-stage businesses, you would be looking extensively and very early on in your business’s life at the fields in which your product or service can add value; and at how possible buyers in those fields have made use of such synergies in the past.

That means that you would be looking for a buyer who had some experience and understanding of the technology involved and the fields of its potential application rather than a financially based venture capital company. And you would be looking to meet several of them. And that probably means knowing the whole field.

Those who have the vision to see a new potential application for a young business’s product or service are those who will turn the price for it into an interesting multiple.

John Whatmore, June 2016

WeWork is sharing at work

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WeWork is sharing at work.

WeWork has launched a huge new co-working space in London: based on the fact that startups in communities learn mostly from each other, WeWork provides flexible work space that encourages the sharing of experience.

In WeWork’s concept, designs and operations, sharing experience is fundamental:

  •      it creates physical communities – of work spaces
  •      it creates social communities – of business developers
  •      it creates internet communities for them
  •      and it aspires to creating international communities.

Its latest work space in London – the largest co-working space in Europe – is designed to maximize encounters (‘70% of members make use of other businesses in the building’): it is in the shape of a cube, with an atrium in its centre; and almost all of its internal walls are glass.

With 3,100 work spaces across 7 floors, each floor has a wide variety of different size offices and well-equipped meeting rooms, with every office need catered for (copying, document handling, private phones etc). In any incubator, a large kitchen/diner is a great place for unexpected encounters; and small meeting groups a great place for problem-solving.

Here, each floor has a large communal meeting area where there is a café providing food and drink and a bar for beer. Opened in July 2015, it is already 80% full and expected to be completely full by March or April 2016.

With a buzz of intensity and enthusiasm, it feels like a market place of entrepreneurs, in which every encounter may have possibilities. There events for members every day – about such things as Yoga, marketing, Pilates or legals. And an Entrepreneur-in-residence has just been appointed, with whom you can book sessions. On the first floor, there is a games area, where there is darts and a Table Tennis table. And there are personal services on the premises, such as hairdressing; and a reception service for deliveries eg of online orders.

Membership – on a monthly basis – provides you with a key, a T-shirt and a password.

The latter gives you access to the WeWork App, on which you put up information about you and your business, and where there is a Wants Wall where you can post recommendations, news etc; and you can pin up your current needs, and expect someone to come back to you who will tell you about how they solved that problem – either from your own work space or another location.

Started by two entrepreneurs in New York in 2011, WeWork now has 42,000 desk spaces in 63 locations, many of them in the US but fast expanding elsewhere, though none yet in the UK outside London (where there are already 6,000 WeWork desk spaces). Membership also gives you access to WeWork facilities in other locations and even in other countries.

At around £425 a desk per month, it is well priced for its City location. While its pricing favours small companies, WeWork also has its larger ones: Skyscanner and Bla Bla Car among them (unsurprisingly both internet based.)

What distinguishes WeWork is its size and its focus on mutual connections. It is unlike Google Campus, the Hub and most other co-working spaces in that it is more of a co-development space. It is unlike the Tramperies in that it is not sector specific; and unlike Accelerators and mutual support groups in that mentoring is not part of the deal.

 We Work is unique – as about sharing at work.

John Whatmore, February 2016

See also: Co-working spaces are designed to promote change and action in Silicon Valley’s megaliths

Silicon Valley’s megaliths are passionate about change and about providing working environments that will echo their mission – to challenge the present and to develop the future. Nothing is exempt: projects, teams, spaces, furnishings, messages, are all designed to provide relentless pressure to try something new. http://wp.me/p3beJt-7P

 

 

 

 

How can we speed up the adoption of innovations?

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How can we speed up the adoption of innovations?
Big changes are difficult to bring about. So far the spur behind them has been semi-public but independent bodies with their ability to take radical approaches – like these nine examples. Is it time for institutions and associations to take the baton?

Rolling out innovations for new technologies and sociologies is often seen as the job for entrepreneurs, their champions and their supporters – in the expectation that their focus on early-adopters will then lead on to more wide-spread useage. But it is hard to locate where that should be taking place and how to foster it, not least in those areas that involve behaviour change such as education and healthcare.
The UK’s Cabinet Office has held three competitions inviting organisations to bid for funds to run Accelerators in social enterprise and in healthcare (short periods of intensive development for a dozen or so carefully selected small teams); and the winning organisations will now have helped with over a hundred such startups.

Nesta’s Innovation Lab works with individuals and organisations to generate, develop and test radical new ideas to address social problems; and links innovative projects to advocacy and policy change – to transform whole systems; exemplified by its work on shifting healthcare towards more peer-support, social prescribing and prevention. The Lab’s objectives are about:
*   creating solutions to solve specific challenges;
*   engaging citizens, non-profits and businesses to find new ideas;
*   transforming processes, skills and culture of government; and
*   achieving wider policy and systems change.
The UK Cabinet’s Behavioural insights Team (the so-called Nudge Unit) was launched in 2010 to see how behavioral science might contribute to the achievement of policy objectives. It’s successes have been very specific eg in changing the unwelcoming nature of Job Centres; with redesigning communications to non-payers of income tax and fines and non-renewers of their driving licences; with reshaping the offer of loft insulation to include loft clearance. Its approach has been to identify the factors that lay behind the behaviour and then to set up an experiment using a faster, more attractive, social and timely approach.

Mike Bloomberg as Mayor of New York used special teams to develop and deliver new approaches on issues ranging from climate change to poverty and education, and his work spread new models that local leaders can use to generate and implement bold ideas.

New York’s iZone is one example: it is a community of schools committed to personalising learning around the needs, motivations and strengths of each child – an incubation lab for the city’s education department. MONUM, the Mayor’s Office for New Urban Mechanics in Boston is another. It aims to enable busy City Hall staff to run innovation projects – often done in collaboration with external entrepreneurs and internal government policy experts.

Copenhagen’s MindLab was launched in 2002 by the Danish Ministry for Business Affairs as an internal incubator for invention and innovation, inspired by Skandia, the Swedish insurance company’s Future Center (of which there are now a number, mainly in continental Europe). It embraces human-centred design; and aims to stimulate dialogue on transforming the public sector and creating a different interplay between state and local level, and create more systematic change. It is now owned by three ministries and works across employment, education, business and growth, and government modernisation.

MIT’s Media Lab is running numerous experiments of all sorts, among them research to measure the social and spatial settings of innovation in districts across the US to identify the factors that promote and sustain innovation in cities. In collaboration with the Austrian Institute of Technology it is running a study of the key persuasive strategies that enable, motivate, and trigger users to shift from high-energy to low-energy modes of transport. And its project aimed at enhancing entrepreneurialism in specific regions of the world is now in its third year.

InnovateUK has taken a different approach: it has spun off several ‘Catapults’ whose objectives are to transform the UK’s capability for innovation. Among these, one has focused on understanding what will stimulate change (Cognicity – new cities); another on tackling public issues that obstruct change (the Digital Catapult); and a third on launching initiatives that will directly stimulate the creation of new products and services (the Space Catapult).

Work in units like these does not fit easily into existing organisations, but is it time for institutions and associations to follow in the lead of the Young Foundation, which has been active in promoting social enterprise for many years, and spur their fields into accelerating innovation?

See also:

iLabs. The teams and funds making innovation happen in governments around the world. Nesta, 2014. mailto:research@nesta.org.uk

Workshops for helping to develop innovations. Commercialising IP, developing startups and SMEs, and new products and new businesses for corporates. Oct 2013. http://wp.me/p3beJt-18

Government launches £10mn social incubator fund. A remarkable bet on the future of an unproven horse. http://wp.me/p3beJt-b5 Sept 2012

Accelerators for young businesses and the Young Foundation. Seeking to turn social SMEs into burgeoning businesses that change people’s live for the better. Jan 2013 http://wp.me/p3bejt-4
John Whatmore
January 2016

Five Ace Mentors – all of whom you may need: No 2

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Five Ace Mentors – all of whom you may need

If the benefits of mentoring are only really appreciated after the experience, the mentors in this series tell us about the special contributions they have made to their mentees.

No 1 Concept development: coming up with something for which there is a real need and that is achievable, marketable and fundable. Jackie Young – in Life Sciences

No2 Strategy and management: determining objectives; getting there; and making and managing the team. JMD – in Fintech.

No 3 Technical: designing, creating and delivering the product/service. Jo Rabin – in Technologies.

No 4 Marketing and sales: attracting users, buyers, customers. Andrew Grant – in modelling.

No 5 Finance: managing the funds.

 No 6 Mentor and support Manager –helping to identify issues and provide mentors; and running events – Thibaut Rouquette – Startupbootamp

 No 2 Regular reviews of strategy and management – from an independent viewpoint

An evident contributor, likeable and enthusiastic, he brought a life-time’s experience of businesses (he recently retired as a Director of a major UK bank), and an effervescent clarity to issues that interested him.

He would ensure that there was a regular review system; he encouraged ‘plan B’ thinking; he was always a ready sounding board; as he was a difficult tank to stop when he thought change was needed.

He picked four turning points to which he had (or in one case had not) recently contributed.

  • I eventually persuaded a team of 30-year old young Turks based in Shoreditch whose finance man aged 50 lived miles away and had other interests, to let him go. Though he had some special assets, cash was becoming an issue, and other needs were being met only tardily. I gained the support of other Directors, and the separation was done elegantly.
  • Missed key milestones was the signal for me to try and persuade one company that they needed to woo not just one major customer, but several others. I had to hammer away at the issue, and I had no emotional attachment to the first strategy.
  • It took me four months and the occurrence of a sharply relevant Court case in Japan for me to persuade ‘African Exchanges’ (not its real name) to change its name as the company found itself increasingly drawn into trading in other currencies.
  • At a first meeting with one company, none of my thoughts and ideas went deeper than to get a mild brush-off. Both parties are looking for an instant link – that will suggest a fertile union. Like many young companies, they seemed dead-set on their plans; and perhaps they did not understand what they might get out of a mentor.

‘As a Startup, this is the biggest thing they have ever done, and they are of course passionate and determined about it. So to lose clarity is unsurprising. Moreover, consensus in the team is a vital factor, so there is also a danger of Groupthink. When passion becomes rigidity, it is time for a dose of adaptability. ‘

‘At least two qualities are important for a good mentor: that ‘he/she has seen it before’, and therefore the more he/she has seen, the better the mentor. And secondly, he/she needs to be (and in status is) dispassionate.’

Confessions of an talented mentor

An evident contributor, likeable and enthusiastic, he brought a life-time’s experience of businesses (he recently retired as a Director of a major UK bank), and an effervescent clarity to issues that interested him. (http://wp.me/p3beJt/9P)