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 ...(Read More)

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 ...(Read More)

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 ...(Read More)

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 ...(Read More)

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 ...(Read More)

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 ...(Read More)

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 ...(Read More)

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 ...(Read More)

This is tricky

It’s pretty difficult to talk about what you’ve got wrong. When you’ve been working on something like School of Everything very intensely for two years you can’t really blame the mistakes on anybody else. But the truth is that we need to rethink because we haven’t managed to make the idea financially sustainable yet. Steve Blank talks about the myth of ‘first mover advantage’ and how actually many of the start-up successes of the internet age haven’t actually been first movers at all. Google didn’t invent search, Amazon didn’t invent online retail, eBay wasn’t even the first company to try to create a marketplace. They were all ‘fast followers’ who saw what other people had tried and improved on it dramatically by executing really well and finding business models that worked. The challenge for us is that we were ‘first movers’. Nobody had tried to do what we were doing ...(Read More)

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.