Mar 082013



So it’s international women’s day.

As Adam Roberts says, I’m not so worried about that as there are 364 International Men’s Days.

We’ve been thinking about women a lot at Bethnal Green Ventures. We’ve taken the apparently controversial decision to state “We particularly welcome applications from women” during our call for ideas.

We’ve received a bit of feedback on that from sources which we wouldn’t expect. Mostly the question has been “why?”


We had a tiny number of applications including women founders in our last round, despite a very inclusive & gender-balanced history with Social Innovation CampsAsking for women to apply means they’ll apply.

Women-run businesses tend to be lower risk, manage cash well, and perform better.
Women are underrepresented in tech.

More diverse workforces and teams perform better.

I also want to plug my friend Tom’s blog post here about “boy books versus girl books” as a symptom of something wrong.

Just a few amazing women

I’d like to take this opportunity as well to point out a few amazing women I’m fortunate.

My grandmother, Sybil Gassen (I have to start here, obviously). Tirelessly helping everyone out, family and friends.

Sarah and Lauren from Snook. These women came from nowhere and work hard, for far less money, to change the world they work in. They’re clever, intelligent, and don’t say no for an answer.

Pam Jenkins has done more to encourage me towards a clear, evidence-based critical thought than anyone. Go to New Orleans and take her courses.

Kath Hibbert takes time out of her daily life to help people get new projects off the ground. She’s kind, clever, and passionate.

My colleague Lily Ash Sakula is a clear thinker & keeps SICamp & BGV on track. She’s creative, a solid critical thinker, and she sticks up for what she believes in – and reminds me to do the same.

Denise Stephens runs Enabled by Design, helping to make assistive technologies a little bit better each day.

Clare Gallagher puts up with me, all while doing really fascinating research into language and perception.



Feb 182013


I don’t think that I know of anyone who likes doing performance reviews. Employees are frightened of them, managers feel like they have to walk a line between ticking boxes to get HR off their back and trying to work out how to give decent feedback. The better managers that I’ve worked with manage to get feedback out on a daily basis.

We at Social Innovation Camp / Bethnal Green Ventures have been thinking about this, too. We wanted to do more reviews for ourselves, and we wanted them to be:

  • Useful
  • Relevant
  • Timely

We’ve been experimenting with morning scrum meetings already, trying to just keep ourselves talking to each other as much as possible. We decided to start off taking a page from our accelerator programme and structure our reviews around the four questions we ask our teams to answer each week:

  • What have you done?
  • What have you learned?
  • What are you going to do next?
  • What do you need help with?

We decided to do it in a 360 degree format: i.e. the whole team does it for each other. We’re a small team, but we think it’s worth knowing what we’re all working on, and what we think each other is working on.

We’ve just done a round, and while it’s not perfect, we think we’re a little bit on to something.

Our intention is to do it quarterly, so the round we’ve just done (in February) refers back to Q4 and ahead to Q2. We’ll let you know how it goes.

What do you think? Are we mad? Should we just do some sort of standard review format? Is there anything we’re missing? Anyone else want to have a re-think about their performance reviews?

Mar 012011

Difficulty in opportunity | Opportunity in difficulty
There’s an old adage that the skeptic sees difficulty in every opportunity, while the entrepreneurs sees opportunity in every difficulty. Think about it. Imagine it’s 1998. Search sucks. Yahoo’s your best bet. Banner ads and the blink tag run rampant across the Internet. has just closed its Series A. Portals are all the rage. What’s a smart entrepreneur to do?

Launch a site based on search, keywords, and no banner ads.

OK, sure, zag when they zig
The thing is, you might go for it. Get off your lazy bum and stop scribbling on beer mats and start up your company. Optimism is what you need. Frameworks. Business models. Adaptability. Entrepreneurial mindset. Zagging vs. zigging. Optimism.

Optimism is great, critical, important. But it’s not just what you need.

Healthy skepticism
This is your ability to look at yourself, your business, your product, with the outside perspective of the skeptic, and see it clearly. Then to turn to the market and proceed with healthy optimism. It’s the difference between blind faith and reasonable optimism. Cultivate it. Then proceed forward as though you’ve already succeeded.

Mar 012011

Hi both of you who are still reading this, since I apparently let aaaaages pass without an update.

Current status: I’ve stopped consulting… and have a job
I’ve been working the past few months with the lovely and talented team at Social Innovation Camp around growing the business that they’ve started and bootstrapped over the past three years. A few things we’ve worked on together have come together, so I’m joining as a full-time member of the team.

Which is, actually, pretty bloody awesome. What’s SICamp? It is:

A Launchpad for tech-based social ventures

An accellerator for tech-based social ventures which are sligthly further along

An innovation consultancy around technology and innovation for the social enterprise, public, and third sector

A trainer and enabler of global launchpads & accellerators

This is pretty much what I’d do if I had £20M in the bank and didn’t have to work. So that’s not so bad.

Cross-posting with SICamp stuff
I’ll be writing, hopefully much more often, for SICamp’s blog and most likely cross-posting here, on things like entrepreneurship, social enterprise, innovation, and musings and findings of each. I look forward to getting back into the swing of writing again… In fact, I feel a musing coming on.

Feb 042010

Whole person education
I am not really a fan of sports. I was a drama and computer geek all through high school and university, and never really bought into the “whole person” education argument, at least until I could see the link between team dynamics in rowing and in companies.

I grew up in New Orleans, whose Saints are headed to the Super Bowl this Sunday. You can’t really come from New Orleans and not bleed black and gold– even the most die-hard non-sports people in my family and friends are all excited for this Sunday. The Saints have always been a decent all-round team, but have never really been very good at anything– generally better offensively, but aside from the Morten Anderson years, never a particularly strong scorers or on defence.

Until this last year.

The Change
I’ve been watching mostly highlight reels (hey, I live in the UK, and with no TV, it’s easier). I noted one thing: Every game talked about a defense who scores, and a team turning over the ball, a lot.

What they’ve done is picked (or identified) a core competetive advantage: The Strip. The Who Dat boys have decided that defence is not about stopping the team moving forward but about getting the ball back, which means knocking it out of the hands of the offensive players and turning it over. This has an enormous effect on the opposing team: They suddenly have to play defensively and in many cases the defense has scored.

The Saints are now the highest scoring team in the NFL.

What’s this have to do with business?
I know, sports metaphors are somewhat overwrought, and American Football metaphors are lost on my heavily-influenced UK/EU audience. Sorry about that. American Football works so well because it lends itself to analysis as it’s a play-by-play game.

Entrepreneurs (and up-and-running businesses): What are you good at? Do that.
The great thing about entrepreneurs is that they are on top of the world, and feel they can do anything. The worst thing is that, particularly in the early days when revenue is scarce and as deals fly by because they’re “not quite right”, they feel they can do anything.

Here’s the thing: If you’re a decent team, say, a consultancy, the temptation is to diverge from your goals and do too many things. Pick one thing that you do really well, and do that one. Do it well. Pass on work that isn’t quite right, or better yet, tell the potential client how you’d approach it within your own framework. Be unambigious about how the game is played– that you focus on the ball (metrics, change management, ideas-to-market, etc).

We focus at the intersection of ideas, people, and technology, building organisational capacity to bring products to market.

Oct 102009

I had the pleasure to speak at the Africa Gathering in London this morning. (twitter feed here).

There were a number of emerging themes through the conference, and not necessarily the ones you might think– access to finance, more capital, education.

Nope. What came up again and again was:

This is Africa. Sometimes problems can seem overwhelming. I have talked about this before, but it bears repeating. My take on it: Break the problems down, solve what you can. Innovate around what you can’t.

Open Source/Open Platforms
FrontlineSMS, Android, Ubuntu Linux– these give you the tools and abilities to build cost-effective, replicable platforms that won’t break the bank. For all the thrill of open source technology in Silicon Valley, the true innovation may come in Africa, where stuff like Microsoft’s failing ability to register its software (due, admittedly, to fighting rampant software piracy) may mean that the sotware is unusable.

Open platforms create frameworks and fertile ground for new innovations. Enough said.

Turn up and do something… and listen when you get there.
The power of doing something, getting over your own inhibitions, going, turning up, is far more important than your ability to make a big, great plan.

On the other hand, the developing world works differently than it does in the developed world. Teddy Ruge of Project Diaspora.suggests getting a member of the diaspora on your team. In whatever case, however, listening is critical. Go. Take a risk. See what works. Give yourself permission to fail, early and often, and learn from your mistakes.

Africans have the solutions to African problems.
You know a lot, but you don’t know the context. Africans can solve African problems– this is the difference between Busines Incubation projects around entrepreneurship and NGO projects– Incubators should offer mentorship rather than direction. The essential difference is that mentorship offers assistance to someone to help them do what they want to do, rather than demanding that they do what you think they should do.

The flip side to the TIA problem is that it’s important to believe that things get better, that the creative, innovative entrepreneur inside can find a solution to the problem. The flip side to mentorship is the encouragement, so that when your entrepreneur finds a wall, he figures out how to go under, around, or through it– or to turn that wall to her own advantage.

Oct 082009

The Hub, York Way
King’s X, London

9th-10th Oct, 2009.

I’ll be speaking about, in general, the challenges that investors and entrepreneurs face in Africa, with a specific focus on my partner organisation Appfrica Labs. Come out if you can.

Details at Africa Gathering and on the EventBrite page.

I’m on at 11 AM on Saturday– and to be quite honest, the lineup of speakers puts me in pretty esteemed company.

Sep 162009

My final post from (10000km and a two weeks after) SoCap.

Sorry this is late– I’ve just been indundated by the types of things that inundate your life at the end of five months on the road: I hadn’t slept in the same place (and mostly in the same country) for more than three weeks between April and September. A lot of laundry, email management, and general decompressing time needed to happen.

MBA-ism is filled with metrics. In fact, there is some research on the impact of metric-heavy MBA thinking on entrepreneurship, and the basic idea is that the two schools of thought are are diametrically opposed.

Dr. Saras Sarasvathy from the Darden School of Business posts her findings at, which broadly suggest that for a certain type of entrepreneur, the whole idea of finding markets, estimating market sizes, and attempting to essentially pre-plan the value of a business is opposite to disruptive models of innovation where marekts are created– i.e., no MBA would have invested in an ice machine because the value of the harvested ice market was too big.

Metrics, Development-style
Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) is a tricky, hard thing. It’s a nightmare for lots of international NGOs as the data collection is done from far away, sometimes by people who don’t understand the value of the information they are gathering (Appfrica may be on to something with their new approach to this…).

Now, add to the difficulty of collecting metrics the ability to compare several projects:

– A clean water project
– A new ICT training centre
– A new delivery system for vaccines
– A new collective agriculture scheme

All of these may cost the same, and have variable outputs– some will have smaller effects on more people, others might be drastically transformational for the lives of a very few. How do you compare them? How you choose between them? How do you decide which was more successful after they’ve run?

Measurement metrics
There are a few different approaches to this, many of the latest (ish) are in things like Blended Value and SROI. These attempt to monetise the outputs, so if you increase someone’s productivity (training), then their increased productivity can be measured, turned into dollars, and compared against the increased sales prices that the agriculture scheme generates for its members, and then you report them along with your financial statements. You can add them so that you achieve “profit” in “social returns”. It’s crude but it’s something.

(if you have any better ideas, then by all means suggest away– I don’t think anyone’s particularly tied to these, although they do yield some kind of apples-to-apples comparisons, although the methodologies for each monetisation vary so they end up being apples-to-pears all to often…)

Operational metrics
These are, generally, Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). These should be the sorts of things that tell you what’s going on while you’re working– cost per vaccine delivery, cost per avoided pregnancy, cost per trained person. This lets you know if you’re on- or off-target, and then you can start to adjust your thinking and approach based on what’s happening in the field.

My question
The question I had with all of this was “What does it all tell you?”

Here’s the thing: Saying you trained 100 people to use the Internet is almost meaningless when you’re 5000 miles away. Saying that you created $50,000 worth of increased productivity is even worse. What you’re trying to get to is a deeper understanding about the effect thatyouvé had on people’s lives.

You want to get to people’s stories. You need the context to know exactly what it means to increase someone’s effective wage $100 a month.

There’s an important thing happening at and around SoCap about creating better, more comparable metrics, but it’s important to not just be stuck in the Excel sheet, but to also communicate what it is that you’re trying to change. There are too many “successful” projects on the ground that achieved exactly what they set out to on the Excel sheet, but didn’t create lasting change.

Sep 032009

The Bottom Line
One funny thing about business is that everything that your uncle told you from your early days is wrong– I was told by most adults as I grew up that the bottom line is what counts. It’s true… to a sense.

Strategy professionals take a different tactic: Profits and the bottom line is oxygen. You can’t live without it. A strategy that chases profits at the expense of all else, however, will likely not produce significant profits in the real world.

Think about it. You don’t walk around saying “Where can I find some oxygen?” You move around pursuing your own needs– taking care of the kids, getting to work, minimising time stuck on the Tube, getting the right diet and exercise, and the oxygen is there.

What happens
Companies that pursue profits kind of die. They are too focussed on the short term. They dilute their core service offering and don’t have a core competitive advantage. Imagine if you had a company that cared for lawns. Your strategy is to pursue profits at the expense of all else, but what you know is lawnmower care, maintenance, grass growing rates, fertiliser application, and the transport and logistics required to care for all of this.

Someone comes along and shows you slot machines. These have higher margins. Your strategy is to make the most money possible. You sell your mowers, fire your people, and buy a bunch of slot machines and try to go round and put them wherever appropriate. You don’t know the licensing, bar owners, etc. This isn’t your business. What do you think your profits will do?

Imagine, now, that you have a different strategy: To make the most beautiful lawns in the city. You do your business well. All of your employees take pride in their work. Customers flock to you.

What I’m hearing at SoCap is a lot of thought about impact along with investment– and most of the most interesting people are, broadly, making this point. Figure out what effects you want to see (beautiful lawns) over profit, and find the best entrepreneurs (or social entrepreneurs) that you can to build these businesses, whether they are for-, non-, or aren’t concerned about profits.

Sep 022009

Social Capital Markets 2009
The SoCap conference is on, on my final few days in San Francisco. I’m here with an as-usual probably unusual perspective, as a for-profit worker in innovation but with a passion for development and social media.

There’s been, so far, a few interesting themes coming out, the first of which is Common Good investing.

Selling up without selling out
My first conference session was called “Selling up without selling out”, which addressed how companies like Ben & Jerry’s, Tom’s of Maine, or The Body Shop sell up to larger PE funds or trade sales and how to keep your social mission.

In true conference fashion, there was very little discussion of actual strategies. It seemed to boil down to:

  • Have a good relationship with the CSR people in the acquiring organisation (or, failing that, another power broker who has a remit or passion to keep your social mission alive)
  • Get acquired by the right person (who believes in your mission), i.e., a fund like Calvert or Satori Capital.
  • Don’t get acquired – build your business to succeed and generate cash (from Better World Books)

Socially Responsible Investing: 1995-2005(ish)
One of the most interesting things, however, was the closing remarks that Terry Mollner from Calvert made. He talked about the first tranche of socially responsible investing (a term he says should be falling by the wayside shortly).

Socially responsible investing is the next evolution from the no-sin funds– i.e., no guns, alcohol, or tobacco, which your financial advisor might have structured for you due to your personal or religious beliefs. It’s a well-structured, easy to understand, and exclusive– broadly, a list of companies or practises that are excluded from investment. The exclusive nature hearkens back to an us-vs.-them mentality– we (the enlightened few) are trying to change the world while them (profiteering corporate managers) are trying to amass all the wealth at the expense of anything.

These days are, from a certain perspective, over.

Common Good Investing
The new model is harder to define and understand, and it’s related to the shift to constant learning, that I’ve talked about before. There’s no good-housekeeping seal that shows that you are a good business. This person wants organic. That person wants Fair Trade. That person wants Local. Another wants pro-poor. Another is concerned with the environment. An awful lot of people just want to know that they’re doing the right thing, whatever the right thing is, but they aren’t sure which of the above is better.

In the UK, we’ve seen a shift to ethical branding– at the first Oxford Business and Environment Summit, which I co-founded, Ella Heeks, the marketing manager for Able & Cole talked about how they had carefully crafted their brand to be constantly on the leading edge of what it means to be doing good, so that their customers can trust that, when they shop A&C, they are getting low-carbon, organic, or whatever it is that they want to care about but don’t have the bandwidth to keep up with, because their learning capacity is being stressed by everything else. this is a great example of a brand helping people to learn (and A&C puts leaflets in with their vegetables telling you why this cabbage is good– it’s local, organic, sustainable, fair-waged, or whatever).

All of this makes responsible investing more tricky– it’s easy to say that one wants to invest in social enterprise, but we know that businesses that lead towards a more sustainable society in a broad sense– by doing simple things like pension plans, taking care of their workers, working towards their communities, or anything else, outperform similar businesses who don’t. Employee turnover has a cost. So do lawsuits. Happy workers are more productive.

Finding those businesses don’t lend themselves to a stock screen on your bloomberg machine, unfortunately. There are a few groups like the B Corp who are trying to make a list of things that companies should do, but doesn’t lend itself to what you care about.

The trick, it seems to me, is to investigate companies not just on their practises, but to see if they practice what they preach, and what their strategy is. In your company, make sure that your strategic priorities do include exactly what nonfinancial external effects you actually want to see from your business.