Archive for the ‘School of Everything’ category

How to start a social startup: knowing when you’re right and wrong

After some initial skepticism, I’m now much more into the lean startup way of doing things. Although I’d read a bit about it beforehand, it was one of our investors at School of Everything who really pushed us to follow the methodology rigorously. At first we found it really difficult but after a year of trying I think we’re much better at it and I just wanted to put down some thoughts about one of the things that we’ve had to battle with over that time, which is knowing when you’re right and when you’re wrong.

For the uninitiated, the basic premise of lean startup is that you shouldn’t actually build anything until you are sure that you have customers who are willing to use your service and pay for it. This comes from the fact that building technology is the most expensive bit of a startup in the early days because it takes a lot of time to do well. Steve Blank calls the process ‘customer development’ rather than ‘product development’.

So the first step of lean startup is that you need a hunch to test. It’s really nothing more than that. Just an idea about how you could solve a problem for people. It should be nothing more than a sentence or two written down. Then you need to get out of the office and test that hunch with real people.

We tried this with an idea we called School of Everything Groups. Our hunch was that people wanted to learn things in small groups and needed a simple tool to help them organise the groups. We told people the idea and showed them a simple presentation of the process. So far, so good and lots of the people we talked to said yes that was a good idea and that it was something they would use. So we went away and started designing up a Minimum Viable Product. It was little more than a Google Spreadsheet and some automated emails but it worked for us and people came along to all the groups we organised. At the same time we were also sending questionnaires to our existing members asking them for their feedback and whether they would use it. We got over 150 responses with nearly 80% of people saying yes this was something they would use. All sounds good right?

Well there’s another side to the story which with hindsight was more important but because we were keen to get things done, I think we ignored. Some of the people we were talking to about the idea were just saying ‘meh’. They were saying it very politely to the extent that we went away thinking they would use it, but actually their criticisms were quite damning. I won’t name names but there are three quotes that looking back I remember quite clearly.

Statistically they were a tiny amount of the feedback we got but they actually summarise all of the problems that the idea would face. It showed that we would be very dependent on ‘organisers’ and we needed a way of reaching them. It showed that people would be reticent about long term commitment to a group and it showed that potential organisers already had ways of doing this that we would need to vastly improve upon. There were also a few other warning signs. A lot of people said it fitted in very well with the ‘big society’ agenda which was very much in the headlines at the time. It think it was easy to think that because the idea ‘fitted in’ with a bigger agenda it was better than it actually was.

And sure enough, as time went on and we developed the idea further, we found that the proportion of excitement to ‘meh’ gradually shifted towards the latter. When we started to ask why we got an interesting answer which we were able to act upon and is now working very nicely, but it meant going back to the drawing board and scrapping a lot of work we’d already done.
The leap was to make the group sessions one-offs and resulted in us creating School of Everything Specials. Now we have people buying the stuff we’re offering and we can learn with real data how to improve it piece by piece. It’s early days but it seems to be working. If you’re in London, you can sign up for our weekly email of interesting one-off classes here.

I struggle to know how we could have worked out that those few negative insights were more important than the many positive ones. Part of me thinks you need to go through the mistakes in order to get to the solution. You need to get to what Steven Johnson and Stuart Kauffman might call a case of the adjacent possible. We certainly couldn’t see ‘Specials’ until we were close enough to make the tiny leap from one idea to another. In lean startup terminology these changes of direction are called ‘pivots’ but I think there’s a lot more work to be done on interpreting the information you collect in order to decide which way to turn.

How to start a social startup: the boring bits

There are some bits of starting a company that everybody has to do, no matter whether their aims are to change the world or not. I thought I’d just write quickly how we went about doing the legal setup, banking and accounting for School of Everything because when we started out, I had no idea how those kind of things worked and what you needed to worry about.

First of all there’s setting up a company in the first place. In the UK this is very, very easy once you’ve made the decision about what type of company you want to be (see a later post for how to make that choice). There are hundreds of services that offer online company registration through Companies House. I used Company Wizard and it was a very straightforward process, costing about £35 and was all done within a few hours. Unless you have all the details worked out at the stage you register the company, it’s worth keeping things simple. Go for the minimum number of directors and give the founders the minimum number of shares to get the percentages right but don’t worry too much about everything else – you’ll update it and change it when you take on investment or if anything changes along the way.

Next you’ll need a bank account. This can take some time and is worth getting right because I got it wrong and have struggled a bit ever since. We went with Co-op Bank because I’d been a customer for ages and liked their ethical stance. The main problem has been their online banking which until last year was one of the worst web services I’ve ever seen. Now it’s just middling but it can really slow you down if you’re not careful. If I were you, I’d look very hard at how good banks’ online services are before taking the leap.

As you get a bit further down the road and start dealing with real money you’ll need an accountant. When we started out, I naively thought that all accountants were pretty much the same but I’ve now seen that we were very lucky in choosing ours after seeing other companies spending far more time and effort on accounting than we have ever had to. We chose Complete Accounting Solutions on Seedcamp‘s recommendation and have a service where we pop everything in the post once a month, answer any queries and they do everything else. I am intrigued by Crunch which looks like a good service but make your choice based on which service is going to keep everything above board but save you the most time.

You’ll also need lawyers and again I’m very thankful that we chose Keystone Law early on. Here you can end up spending a fortune so you do need to bare price in mind and since lawyers generally charge by the hour, I think you’re looking for a lawyer who has lots of experience at doing what you want them to do so they can do it fairly quickly. All of the people we’ve dealt with at Keystone ‘get’ startups and have been great at explaining what we can and can’t do. Other lawyers are available but I’ve been very happy with everything they’ve done for us.

All these things are important and if you get it wrong they can really drag you down. I’d say go with personal recommendations but do remember that there are lots of friendships in this world that can lead to people recommending people who may be good but aren’t suited to what you want to do. So take the time to understand exactly how the people you’re going to work operate and ask them a few questions to see how well they can explain things to you. After all, when you start something up, the buck will more than likely stop with you, so you have to understand all the boring bits as they relate to the company as much as the people who are advising you.

I’ve actually found what I’ve called here ‘the boring bits’ really interesting. I didn’t know much about how companies worked before I started and now I’m very glad that I do. I think it’s one thing that puts people off starting their own organisations but it shouldn’t really. It’s all pretty straightforward once you get into it and there are plenty of people around to ask for advice as well as places online to get information. So don’t let the minutiae of running a business put you off. It’s not as scary as it looks. And if you’d like to join Bethnal Green Accountancy Club, just let me know.

The City as School

This is roughly what I said at Be Bettr on Friday 14th January 2011 at the Conway Hall in London. Thanks to Matt Jukes for organising!

1) When we hear the word education most of us think of a classroom, of a teacher standing at the front, of kids sitting at rows of desks. Perhaps the slight smell of a distant canteen. Of course not all schools are like that but when it comes to learning throughout life we hold on to the metaphors and images we grew up with. It’s very hard for us to think of an education system for adults that doesn’t mirror those that are basically drawn from our own experiences, but I think we need to, and perhaps in doing so we could end up rethinking education for everyone, including that of children. For me it’s about how you reorganise the system – I’m not so interested in content, I think the demand for that comes from people anyway. So today I want to talk about a few hacks to the system we’ve tried with School of Everything and why I think we can reclaim some old ideas in modern times.

2) First a couple of pieces of context to what we’re doing. The human race tipped over to be majority urbanised in 2008. Nearly 90% of the UK population lives in an urban area. Since this is where the people are, this is where the ideas, knowledge and skills are concentrated too. While cities have been the great drivers of society and economy, they of course have their faults. They massively lack the social infrastructure of old. When Michael Young and Peter Wilmott wrote in detail about Family and Kinship in East London in 1955, what they found was a  world rich in social relationships, networks of dependence and mutual support that helped them face the adversity of insecure and low-paid employment. They charted what would now be described by government types as “social capital” and how it made urban neighbourhoods function effectively.

3) A whole raft of factors set about gnawing away at those bonds throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s. While there were improving levels of health and education, other factors like urban planning changed the way people related to each other. And as Clay Shirky points out – television sucked up our cognitive powers. While TV did open up new learning opportunities – Michael Young himself went on to create the Open University based on the sophisticated new technology of the time (BBC 2) – it also eroded social time and diminished the amount of time that people spent in civic spaces and activities. The car also enabled people to speed through their own local area, avoiding their neighbours. So to my mind, the car and television made urban areas lose some of the efficiency they had developed in relation to learning and building relationships with other people.

4 ) I think it’s only now that we’re just beginning to invent ways of making the city as efficient as it could be. Silently the city is becoming connected to the internet. We are teaching the internet about the real world, geotagging cafes, adding data about hospitals through Patient Opinion. Telling it where people are with mobile phone signals. Technology is just starting to become a layer of the real world, as roads and sewers did before. It’s not the cables and transmitters that matter but the representation of useful information that can be connected. As Clay Shirky says, technology only becomes interesting when it becomes boring.

5 ) Over the past 3 years we’ve been working on School of Everything. We started out with a simple proposition – that we could use technology to connect people who had something to teach with people who wanted to learn. What we built was a listings service where people could say what they could teach and students could provide feedback and ratings of that teaching. Most of the learning going on was one-to-one and it’s worked pretty well. We’ve helped tens of thousands of people find learning opportunities in their local area and as time has gone on we’ve added features. January is always our busiest month as people learn something new as a resolution.

6 ) But in the middle of last year we started to feel there was something missing from our plan. We started to see that there was real power in learning in small groups rather than just with a teacher. It coincided with the economic crunch and us seeing people often having a bit more time on their hands but willing to spend less on learning stuff. As we started to explore, we came across the idea of Study Circles in Sweden or studicirkeln as I’m told they’re called. They developed over the course of the last century and have gradually become the predominant form of adult education. Today there are roughly 300,000 of them. It turns out there is some heritage in the idea in the Young Foundation as well.  In the 1970s Michael had the perfectly sensible idea of running them on trains and so throughout the 1970s and 80s it was fairly common for people to meet up on the 17.18 to Stevenage or any one of 100 other trains across the country to learn something new for the 30 mins of their journey home.

7 ) We started five Groups in Bethnal Green. Each group had 6-12 members and covered a different subject in a different kind of space – we covered everything from cookery to code, art to accounting. We met up regularly, sometimes bringing in people who knew more than we did, sometimes just getting together with people who were interested in the subject. Of course we realised this was going on all around us already whether through church house groups, book groups or other subjects in peoples homes.  What we found was that it works – it helps people learn new things and build new relationships.

8 ) This week we’re opening up the system to other people and we need people who are willing to make things happen. Self organisation needs a little bit of organisation. Call them community organisers, learning champions, whatever you like but they are people who give self organisation the nudge it needs – they set the patterns. We hope what we’ve built fits the needs of organisers, making their lives simpler and enabling them to have greater impact. We’re looking for people who want to back the organisers – who want to support networks of groups. Whether they’re local authorities who want to see more self organised learning in their areas, companies who want to see their staff learning from one another or campaigns that want to create networks of groups meeting up regularly to learn about an issue.

9 ) Sugata Mitra says “Education is a self-organising system where learning is an emergent outcome.” When you think about it a university campus is just a collection of facilities with a bunch of people who are motivated to learn new things come together. The organisational infrastructure of a university is possible to recreate using technology. I suppose what we’re trying to create is the invisible, yet practical university.  No quad, no clock tower, no vice chancellor’s suite, but full of people who want to learn and people who can help them. We just provide a way of seeing and organising that layer of learning opportunities. We want to see neighbourhoods becoming schools. Putting to use underused buildings and encouraging people who have something to teach, to share with other people.

10) Hacking is about simple interventions that change everything. Using the weight and momentum of what exists to help change its direction. It’s Jujutsu with ideas and code. We’d like your help to use this simple hack – the idea of the learning group, to try and revolutionise adult learning. Thanks for listening.

How to start a social startup: co-founders

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:

Two other things I think you should look for in choosing a founding team:

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.

All of those can be difficult conversations, but they’re definitely easier early on.

How to start a social startup: prototyping

When you’ve defined your problem, have a short description of your solution and you’ve started getting positive feedback from real people, it can be helpful to build a prototype of how your solution might work.

The key thing here is that you’re not yet building the technology you will finally use. You’re using things that are cheaper and quicker so that you can get feedback. As with the initial interviews and questionnaires, you’re looking for patterns but also aware of anything that sounds strange when you first hear it – sometimes those things can tell you a lot.

These are the tools I’ve tried and would recommend:

Draw it on paper

One of the best ways to show the service to people is to have cards with the stages they would go through to use the service and then see how they react. It really doesn’t need to be complex at all – just sheets of normal paper or card that you can show them in order.

Get people together

We did two things to test the original idea for School of Everything by getting the people who we thought would use the website in a room together, although I don’t think we realised we were prototyping at the time. It helps get over all the asynchronous and distance stuff that your service will help people get over eventually.

The first was what we called Free Schools, not the Michael Gove ones, but evening events where we’d get a bunch of people (usually about 20) together and put up a board with ‘What would you like to teach’ on one side and ‘What would you like to learn’ on the other. Basically they would get conversations going and quite often people would meet up afterwards to learn from one another.

The other was prompted by Russell Davies who asked us to do ‘something fun’ in the lobby at Interesting in 2008. We built an Interesting Machine which was really just a postbox that people could put what they wanted to learn or teach into. We got several hundred cards and sorting through them showed us a lot. We didn’t know quite what to do with them though. Thinking back, what we should have done is then set up groups for all the people who were interested in similar topics.


We’re really lucky at School of Everything because we have Sangeet who can mock things up in photoshop very quickly. We often turn them into click through presentations and then show them to people to get immediate feedback. It very quickly shows you if there is any confusion about what the service does. Wireframes have a similar effect and there are lots of tools out there for putting them together pretty quickly, even if you’re completely non-technical. Mockingbird is a very good one.

Be the machine

The next technique is possibly the closest you can get to building something that might work. If you’ve started to realise what the different bits of your service are you can generally mimic them yourself using Google Docs, email and a mobile phone. This is what we’ve been doing over the summer with School of Everything Groups as members of Bethnal Green Cookery Club will testify. Of course you can only do it for a small number of people but it’s amazing what you learn.

So that’s it. A few techniques for non-coders to get a better idea about whether the problem you’re trying to solve is real and whether the solution you’re proposing is something people might use. At this stage, you still don’t have a website or a business plan but you have a lot more information about whether your idea is a goer.

How to start a social startup: Understanding the problem

We’ve just started helping the first cohort of Bethnal Green Ventures projects and I’m using it as an excuse to write down some of the things I’ve learned about social startups over the past couple of years.

It starts with a hunch

You start the process of developing a startup with hunches about both the problem you’re trying to solve and the solution you’re going to build. In my experience these are always sparked by a story, which for School of Everything Mark I came from John Markoff’s book What the Dormouse Said,  but for other people it’s something that a friend says or something they go through themselves. The story of the Free U gave me the idea for a solution and I could quickly see the problem that it solved – or at least I thought I could.

My mistake was that this wasn’t a problem that individual people had – it was systemic. I thought the problem we were trying to fix was how rigid and out-of-date the organisation of the education system is and that is a problem, it’s just not one that a website can solve on its own. A website solves the problems of an individual person, but it then takes lots of people using the website to change the way something is organised systemically. And generally people won’t do that unless you build something that solves their individual problem.

So I think if you’re building a social start-up, the problem you’re trying to solve has two parts:

  1. an individual person’s problem that you can build some technology to help solve.
  2. a social problem that will be solved if lots of people use your solution to 1.

You can think of either one first – the important thing is that you need both.

Get out of the office

When you have these written down and your hunch about a solution, you need to get out and test them. We’ve been doing this incessantly over the summer for School of Everything Mark II. What’s important is to get accurate information. I like the analogy of this being like the scientific method: you have a hypothesis that you then test by collecting real data.

You need to think who might have the problem that you’re trying to solve. Over the summer we recruited people by asking for volunteers through Facebook and Twitter and just following our own social networks two or three degrees to get to different groups. These were as diverse as over 55s in Manchester through to young mums in London.

We found the two best tools for gathering information are Surveymonkey and shoeleather. Surveymonkey gives you some numbers but you do have to be careful in the way you design questions and interpret responses. We set the goal of getting over a hundred responses and looked for answers to be chosen by over 80% of respondents for us to think it was strong enough finding.

We also did lots of face to face interviews by getting out of the office. These give you the insights you need to know how what you’re proposing will fit into  people’s lives. You also get more accurately from these what people might be willing to pay. It’s much easier to tell whether people are serious face-to-face.

Minimum Viable Product

We also showed people what the Lean Startup crowd call a Minimum Viable Product spec. This is important because you need to be confident that you can build it. As Steve Blank says, “Any idiot can get outside the building and ask customers what they want, compile a feature list and hand it to engineering.” So as we went around asking people if anything we were reducing the number of features rather than getting more ideas about what it should include.

Once you’ve done this for a while, the answers become quite clear as to whether what you think you’re solving is a real problem and whether there are people out there who’d be willing to pay for what you’re proposing.

By the end of this process you should have:

Note you don’t have any technology yet, or a business plan or a company or full team or bank account. You can do all the above and have a pretty good idea about whether something is worth building or not but only have spent a very small amount of money.

Building the product vs building the company

Paul Graham is a bit of a hero of mine as I think he is for many people who have had a go at creating a start-up. Not necessarily for his track record (which is also brilliant) but for his ability to put his finger on what’s important, particularly in the essays on his site:

I’d noticed startups got way less done when they started raising money, but it was not till we ourselves raised money that I understood why. The problem is not the actual time it takes to meet with investors. The problem is that once you start raising money, raising money becomes the top idea in your mind. That becomes what you think about when you take a shower in the morning. And that means other questions aren’t.

(Rest of the article is here.)

At the moment we’re really focussing on building what in the start-up world is called the ‘product’ as we design a new service to help people organise small groups to learn from one another. I have to say I’m really enjoying it. It’s entirely what I’m thinking about in the shower rather than worrying about all the permutations of investment or legal issues.

However, there is a bit of a knack to minimising the amount of time I spent on managing the company. Some of that came with experience – the first time I had to do an annual return for example, I worried about it quite a bit, but the next time it was much less of a distraction. Other tricks are about choosing the right tools – Things has helped me not to have to worry about remembering key dates for company admin and the simple spreadsheet I use for managing cashflow is now very easy to use. There’s also choosing the right people to take boring problems away – having the right accountants and lawyers definitely helps.

I guess that’s why we’re running Accountancy Club – to help people spend less time worrying in the shower so they can think about building exciting things instead.

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Thinking about what we believe

We’ve been going back to basics at School of Everything as we think about what to build next. Part of the process is creating a mini-manifesto that we’ll use to help us make decisions about the technology we build – here’s the work-in-progress version. It’s an evolution of these values we wrote down in the very early days of School of Everything and interesting to see what has changed.

In parallel to thinking about what we believe, we’re going through a lean startup methodology, using interviews and questionnaires to identify problems people would like us to solve and the smallest number of features we could build into some technology that would solve them.

The hunch (or hypothesis to use Steve Blank’s word) we’re working with is that people want to learn new things but find formal courses or lessons off-putting and expensive. The idea we have is to help people organise their own small learning groups. You can find out a bit more about the idea and tell us what you think here. Results so far are very encouraging.

Who are School of Everything visitors?

We’ve been doing a lot of work over the last few days understanding the people who come to School of Everything. We currently have just under 100,000 unique visitors per month who mainly come from Google search (about 85%). Here’s the demographic information that Google give us about our visitors:


This tallies up with responses to a questionnaire we did in October that showed that our visitors are slightly more likely to be female, are mainly aged between 19-40 and tend to be in full time employment.

One of our current ‘guesses’ is that we’re not quite managing to match up our supply and demand effectively. I’ll post more soon about what we know about our teachers but would be interesting to know how our visitors compare to other sites.