Supporting early-stage ventures


Do Alcoholics Anonymous and the Samaritans have something to tell us – about support for early-stage ventures?
Early-stage ventures have fast-evolving needs for support – in the form of advice, knowledge, expertise, information and contacts – help often found in fellow travellers (as in Alcoholics Anonymous), but also and more widely in mentors. But their help, highly valuable as it is, is difficult to manage if just the right help is to be successfully brought to bear at just the right moment. Various approaches to their management are used but none have been as assiduous as, for example, those of the Samaritans. A new programme, just launching, is experimenting with a higher level of prior briefing, co-ordination, and review.

If learning the right questions and finding good answers are key aspects of new ventures, the mere availability of almost limitless information that is the case to-day is not enough.
Participants in innovation communities often cite the (incidental) help of others with whom they are located, who may be a bit further forward with their project than they are, and can speak from their experience; as they also cite people with all sorts of knowledge, expertise and experience, especially those who have ‘done it before’. Managing comings-together is an important role, and the kitchen is an important location for them. Level39 in Canary Wharf, London sounds the Cookie Bell every day at 3pm, upon which everyone has to come out of their office and say hello to someone they have never met before!
YCombinator’s approach is regular dinners – at which all participants have to talk about their progress. Watershed Bristol requires its participants to meet for lunch on Fridays and report similarly about their progress etc; and their comments are edited and later circulated to everyone on the intranet.
The Alcoholics Anonymous programme has some similarities: in essence it consists in the provision of a sponsor, a more experienced person on the road to recovery, and meetings that ensure regular contact with those who are in similar circumstances, at which an open discussion of your success (or failure) is required – together with a re-commitment to your objectives, and a discussion about how those objectives can be achieved both now and to-morrow.
While entrepreneurs don’t know what they don’t know (nor often what they need to know), mentors play crucial roles, not least in forging links, including with those who do know. Although mentoring is accepted as a collection of different things, the adoption of mentoring varies widely. Mentoring is widely used in life-changing organisations like The Prince’s Trust and the Probation Service; and a Government report claims that the survival rate for new businesses is five times greater when they have the support of mentors.
However some hatcheries do not offer mentors, and many have few mentors; yet virtually all Accelerator programmes provide mentors, some of them in quantity. (The Bethnal Green Ventures Accelerator did not offer mentoring in its earliest programme, but has always done so since.) One new Accelerator programme is doing without mentors – on the grounds that they give conflicting advice. A University-based public mentoring programme has bemoaned the fact that its mentees all too often fail to renew their first contact with a mentor. Participants in the early stages of programmes often find their contact with mentors quite bruising. And the ethos of mentoring is rooted in the one-to-one form of relationship – where other forms might also have their moments.
But even with the greatest care, mentors are not easy to select, nor to match up; they seem sometimes not to understand how best to help, and their contributions can be unco-ordinated. And, unpaid as they are, their help is difficult to organise and to manage effectively. Moreover the particular help that is needed is not always available.
Mentors are usually identified and invited to participate by leaders; and the relationship is usually launched with some form of speed-dating with mentors; following which both participants and mentors identify those whom they would like to meet again.
Arrangements are also made for participants to make appointments with those mentors who will be visiting at certain times; and they can also make arrangements with the same mentors for subsequent meetings. Telefonica’s Wayra Lab encourages teams to establish informal boards.
The Samaritans (surely the ultimate mentors) are highly selective about those whom they recruit, have a substantial induction programme for them, provide mentors during their initial period, pro-active supervisors for each shift, regular refreshers, and social events. And they provide careful supervision of mentors for longer term clients.
Startupbootcamp’s Fintech. just launching, an Accelerator for SMEs, has taken pains to ensure that the mentors know one another and that they understand their roles – running a Mentor Fest, a full Mentor Day and regular Monday meetings for mentors.

(1) See ‘What do participants in Accelerators value most?’
(2) See also the Belgian Plato programme for SMEs (

John Whatmore
July 2014
The Centre for Leadership in Creativity


The latest co-working spaces: what makes them work?


Flexible work spaces, motivational atmosphere, ideas-two-a-penny, bewildering variety of expertise, learning regimes, compelling visions, inspiring visitors: all of them pressure cookers for hot ingredients.

You might think that internet connectedness was the antithesis of co-working, yet co-working spaces have never been more popular. Above all their users are about enterprise and innovation; and all the co-working spaces – whether corporate, geekish, get-up-and-go, dedicated or whacky – exude a culture of passion and determination.

Below are descriptions of Level39 in Canary Wharf, of Google Campus in Tech City, of Telefonica’s Wayra Lab, of Watershed in Bristol, of The Royal College of Art’s Incubator, and of a co-working space at London University; and Nesta is building one of its own. And there are Creativity Labs in several universities and other locations. And now ‘Hubs’ – large co-working facilities along with specially adapted meeting spaces – have arrived in London, as they have all over the world; and of course in Silicon Valley there are co-living spaces.

What are they designed to do and what makes them work?


The latest co-working space is ‘Level39’, half way up one of the towers at Canary Wharf, and in the middle of a cluster of the offices of a number of international banks – host to a recent Accelerator backed by the Mayor and Accenture aimed at helping some SMEs to market new products to big banks ( Unlike any other, it is more like a boutique hotel than a sandpit – laid out with a sitting area supplied with the latest iPad controlled coffee-making machine, an area of small meeting/ working rooms, an area of larger meeting rooms and a big event space. Level39 is focusing on accelerating young businesses in financial, retail and future cities technology areas. The space has been provided by the Canary Wharf Group – in the hope of attracting new businesses to the area; and it is overseen by Eric van der Kleij, previously Head of Tech City.

Tech City’s co-working spaces like TechHub, Central Working, Innovation Warehouse and Google Campus are a long way from the Common Room – if that was an early version of the co-working space; and a long way from most incubators, one of the more recent versions of co-working spaces, which were essentially small flexible spaces on short tenancies, with services on tap – for growing SMEs.

In its basement, Google Campus in Shoreditch has a large area of desks and soft seating – regularly packed, mainly with individuals working away on their laptops, alongside a café; it has a medium size presentation space on the ground floor, where there are presentations of all sorts at least once a day; and its upper floors are used for the cohorts of longer-term development programmes, each with their own regime – like Seedcamps, Springboard and Bethnal Green Ventures, the latter two being 13-week Accelerator programmes.

With desks close to one another, Bethnal Green Ventures was ‘accelerating’ six teams, developing ideas for social ventures which they would eventually pitch to investors. At the entrance was a large kitchen, where much discussion took place. ( (Uden Films once converted some small premises in West London so that there were large kitchens at the end of each corridor, where staff not only made tea and coffee, but also cooked their meals, thus ensuring that they spent more off-beat time together, from which ideas might spring.)

Telefonica’s Wayra Lab in central London, its tenth Accelerator world-wide, has spaces for 20 teams (of 2-5 members), each one partitioned off from the others, around the outside of an enormous single-floor area; and in the middle of this area are recreation facilities (eg table tennis, darts etc), informal meeting and sitting areas, and an ‘Agora’ – a large open space where meetings of all kinds can be held. Each cohort has six months in the Accelerator, with the possibility of a short extension. (     And it is in the process of duplicating this on a lower floor – for its collaboration with UnLtd for accelerating social ventures under a contract with the Cabinet Office. The Royal College of Art’s  modern Incubator in Battersea (for 2-year residencies) has a similar lay-out – on a smaller scale.

Nesta is in the process of fitting out a state-of-the-art area to accommodate the ten teams it is in the process of selecting for its first cohort in its Accelerator for social enterprises under the same contract.

Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol has a similar physical lay-out, though of fully open-plan space – recently expanded from 30 to 42 places – each in residence for 3 to 12 months; and contrives its own regime for getting the participants to use each other’s knowledge and experience, and for introducing them to experts from parallel fields in which ideas can soar. (  London University’s Centre for Creative Collaboration at King’s Cross, has a similar space for a few small businesses, with no limits on duration of tenure, and ‘no rules’!

Then there are spaces that are designed and equipped for specialised meetings such as Creativity Labs and Future Centres (for brainstorms and concentrated thinking – especially about strategy) such as Royal Mail’s Creativity Lab, BT’s Hothouses, and their equivalent at Essex University, Norwich University, Coventry, Liverpool et al.

Our burgeoning entrepreneurial world has given birth to myriad small businesses frantically seeking to fill emerging niches, for which The Hubs are purposed – as ‘spaces created for peer-collaboration where inventions and innovation are taken from idea to impact’. They ‘are designed to foster a unique culture of learning-by-doing – a workshop cum laboratory cum headquarters – a Superstudio for pioneers’. A very recent creation, there are now over forty all round the world, all owned and funded locally, of which three are in London.

Westminster’s (partly funded by Westminster City Council as well as  private funding) positively throbs with enterprise: there are 160 places at hotdesks or reserved spaces, available on all sort of flexible terms, with access to meeting rooms – of various sizes, with break-out rooms, a ‘greenhouse’, ‘collaboration booths’, an event space and a circular-style ‘strategy theatre’, plus a café/lounge, and of course fast internet connections. Every day there are inspiring, practical or creative events of different kinds including Hub Network lunches, with leaders, experts, gurus who have ‘done it before’ or seen it before (or else done something strikingly similar.)

There is a Founders’ Camp, which introduces founders to one another; there is ‘Academy at the Hub’ – a drop-in education programme for entrepreneurs; there are hosts and facilitators, and there are plans to set up a mentoring regime. The Hub both hosts and runs Accelerators (curated 13-week programmes of intensive development for new businesses); and it runs a Summer School. When it comes to ongoing funding, there is a network of investors; there is a Social Enterprise Investment Fund and a Crowdfunding platform. Seemingly every element available on hand for those seeking to develop ideas into innovations, and an ideal location for those many laptop workers currently to be found in Starbucks, Café Neros and Costas.

At the other extreme from Level 39, are co-living spaces – which have become popular in Silicon Valley. Designers, engineers, entrepreneurs and their ilk having found that their motives, their aspirations and their lifestyles were sufficiently co-incidental for them to come together and pool their money to take one of the large and less popular houses in the area. They claim to ‘gain an instant circle of fellow technological thinkers, brainstormers and tinkerers with whom they can dream and invent’ (See Over the Rainbow –, published 30.6.12).

‘Theoretical debates take place on the staircases, around the dinner table and by the grand piano. Whiteboards are scattered through the house with one covering the wall in the living room – floor-to-ceiling, where people do maths problems in different-coloured markers and scribble ideas for start-up companies. The residents host salon discussions once a month, inviting experts in politics, oceans or rocket launchers to lead conversations. A couple of times a year, they have a ‘hackathon’ when scores of computer geeks bring their laptops over and share some beers.’


Common to all of these spaces, especially those that take in cohorts for development programmes of fixed length, is that the participants are learning together and from each other. The extent to which each such space encourages divergent thinking may depend on how different their projects are, and on how radically participants are being encouraged to think.


If you run co-working spaces or are planning or developing a co-working space, contribute to the discussion here. (And if you manage co-working space, tell us who you are your most popular visiting speakers – experts from parallel fields, such as architects, theatre producers, chefs, artists, composers, designers or inventers.)