The future of cities

Diane Coyle has a great post reviewing various books about the future of cities. This is the money quote for me:

Is this the dawn of an era of powerful cities and weak nations – much like the age of city states half a millennium ago? It seems highly likely. More than half the world’s people live in urban areas now. Most economic activity consists of trade in ideas and people and goods and services between cities. Mayors are important figures, who for the most part feel less bound by the constricting conventions of national party politics. As ever, though, political and social institutions lag behind technological and economic trends, and in centralised polities like the UK urban renaissance would involve some big changes.


What would the perfect tech for good investor look like?

We’re really just getting started with Bethnal Green Ventures. We believe that tech has the potential to massively change the world for the better, solving big problems in healthcare, education and sustainability to name a few. We believe that there’s no shortage of people out there who have the talent and desire to build the new tech startups to solve those problems and finally we believe that the capital to help them is out there, even if it’s perhaps not yet getting to the people who could do the most with it.

As we develop we want to get a lot better at what we do and we think it’s always good to aim for the stars. Hence the question in the post title – if you had a blank piece of paper, what would the perfect tech for good investor look like? What support would they provide? How would they provide it? How would they behave? Where would they be based? How would they know if they were successful?

Positive thinking for startups

I have good days and bad days. I admit there are moments when I think that working on startups is futile and that none of the ideas we back will ever work as well as we want them to. On days like that I see all the reasons big institutions will hold back the kind of innovation that we think we need to improve the lives of billions of people. There are the days when I think the the London startup community can also be its own worst enemy by talking itself down or worse finding all the flaws in each others’ ideas even before they’ve got going. They’re the days when I wince at that awful quote by Margaret Mead that people use in countless dumb powerpoint presentations, “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”.

But then there are good days when, taking a step back, I realise there is huge value to be created by helping solve the big social and environmental challenges of the world. Logically, I think, somebody is going to do it and it might as well be our community that does. Then I realise that over the last few months we’ve had more people walk through our door with big ideas than ever before. I think back to some of the amazing people I’ve met who are startlingly ambitious. They’re people who realise that pushing yourself and your idea further is what creates change. They think how can we make something ten times better and not just incrementally improve the world.

By raising our ambitions we raise our tolerance of risk and also I think our chances of success. Perhaps things will go wrong specatularly and people burn out more often but I think that’s what we should be working on – finding ways that people can be stupendously ambitious as they try to improve the world but doing that in a safe and supported way.

It’s days like that when I look at Margaret Mead’s quote and can’t help thinking it’s absolutely true.

If Atlas gave a damn

I wish I’d taken a photo. It was a year or so ago and there was a bit of a kerfuffle over the influence of Ayn Rand on tech startup thinking so I decided I should read the most famous of her novels Atlas Shrugged while I was on a trip to the US. For some reason I bought a hard copy from Amazon which was much bulkier than I expected and when I got to the airport to come home I realised my luggage was over weight and something had to go. I left Ayn Rand teetering on the top of a trash can at SFO.

If you’re unfamiliar with the metaphor, Atlas represents all the charismatic and entrepreneurial go-getters that Rand used to like to hang out with who are holding the world on their shoulders. When Atlas shrugs and lets the world fall, everything goes to pot. It’s as if the 1% go on strike because government and all those pesky poor people don’t appreciate their genius. The whole thing is silly and completely ignores the complexity and interconnectedness of society.

Barack Obama probably put it best:

Ayn Rand is one of those things that a lot of us, when we were 17 or 18 and feeling misunderstood, we’d pick up. Then, as we get older, we realize that a world in which we’re only thinking about ourselves and not thinking about anybody else, in which we’re considering the entire project of developing ourselves as more important than our relationships to other people and making sure that everybody else has opportunity – that’s a pretty narrow vision.

The power of small teams

A few weeks ago, sitting in the audience at O’Reilly’s (very good) Cultivate conference about startup culture I started to think about the power of working in small teams, and how little you hear about it how to do it well. By small I mean two to five people – any larger and other dynamics start to come into play – but they could be independent (such as a startup’s co-founders) or within larger organisations. The truth is that it’s very different to working on your own and also very different from working within the hierarchy of a larger organisation.

When you look around, there doesn’t seem to be that much out there about what makes a small team really zing. There’s tons of productivity porn about working as an individual and reams of material about large organisations,  but when it comes to practical advice about working in a small group to achieve something extraordinary, I can’t find much worth reading. Then there’s the lack of specific tools. Even things like Basecamp and Google Apps have really been designed so they can scale to larger teams and organisations. It seems there’s very little out there that’s just to help small team collaboration. If you know of any, I’d appreciate some links or recommendations.

Perhaps the truth is that tech isn’t really the problem. When you’re talking about such small groups, it’s really all about how well you get on and the culture you develop in the team. If you want to work together and you have a problem worth solving, sometimes something magical happens. I think there maybe some tricks you can use to help that along but ultimately you need the right group of people at the right time.

Writing every day

Euan’s post prompted me to think about how it’s such a struggle to try and write something every day. I know I want to but have to play mind games with myself to actually make it happen. I was doing quite well earlier this year but then everything seemed to step up a level at BGV a few months ago and something had to give.

I think remembering why I do it is important. As Euan says,

For me the biggest reason to blog is personal. If I don’t blog I don’t think as much, or at least not with as much focus. I don’t notice as much. I am less aware of what is happening around me and what it might mean. Of course if you blog in public then hopefully others will benefit from your efforts and if you are seen to be interesting and know what you are talking about then the process can lead to all sorts of opportunities. It’s like lobbing pebbles into ponds. You don’t always know where the ripples are going to go but you get better at lobbing bigger pebbles into better ponds.

So I’ll try harder and see if I can get back to daily blogging. I’m sure I’ll miss a few but it’s a habit I want to work on.


Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo.

Good taste to good work

Lovely little video teasing out the idea at the heart of Ira Glass’s lessons for doing good work. (via Brain Pickings)

Opening up startup investment

Yesterday was a pretty big day for startups in the US as the general solicitation clause of the JOBS act kicked in which allows startups to publicly say that they are fundraising. Up until now early stage investment was done in relative secrecy but almost overnight this means AngelList will become the biggest equity crowdfunding platform in the world. Investment is still only open to what are called ‘accredited’ investors in the US though.

We’ve had equity crowdfunding in the UK for a year or so and while it’s a bit easier if you’re a certified ‘high net worth individual’ or ‘sophisticated’ investor, actually anybody who understands the risks involved can invest in startups through platforms like Seedrs or Crowdcube.

I’ve noticed that VC firms seem to look down their nose at crowdfunding though. I was at an event a few months ago where one well known London fund said they wouldn’t invest in a startup that had raised crowdfunding. But I think AngelList’s announcements yesterday will change that and if anything the VCs should be worrying about them as competition rather than being snooty. Even the VC firms that have invested in Angellist spin it that they’re complementary models but I think they’ll have to be pretty clever to avoid effectively being in competition in the long run.


Bethnal Green Ventures: Class of Summer 2013


We’re very proud of all the 2013 BGV teams. Last Thursday was our public Demo Day and they all did a fantastic job of explaining why what they are doing is important and why they’re the right people to do it. The audience certainly seemed to be impressed and there’s been a lot of follow up. A huge thank you to all the teams, funders, mentors and supporters as well as the BGV team of Lily, Laura and Glen for helping to make it all happen.

London Tech for Good Meetup

Well that went pretty well. Last night we opened the doors to the Tech for Good London Meetup and 150 people showed up. There’s been a lot of Tech for Evil news over the past few weeks so it was heartening to hear some stories of people doing useful things. As well as launching the next BGV call for ideas, we heard from five startups:

What was also interesting was how indistinguishable in business terms some of the pitches were from non-social startups. Winnow Solutions won Seedcamp last week with their pitch about resource efficiency and Speakset gave a very convincing argument about older people being the biggest business opportunity of the next 20 years.

At the end of the evening we opened it up for people to give plugs for funding schemes or events coming up and there were plenty of those too. It does feel like something is happening around this in London. Long may it continue.

Many thanks to Lily for making it all happen, Eze at Google Campus for hosting us, and our speakers for telling us about their ideas.