Interconnected

Meat and gratitude

There's a bunch of fuss about Beyond Burger rn regarding

  • ingredients - I'd mentally filed Beyond as "healthy plant-based" whereas it's a ton of bad-for-you vegetable oil and really should be sceptically thought of as "heavily processed"
  • carbon footprint - beef is bad

I'm excited about these new vegan burgers because

  • "artificial" does not necessarily equal "bad" so I'm in principle ok with the heavily-processed thing (though I'm concerned in how this is being obfuscated)
  • the meat and dairy industry sucks
  • yes, carbon footprint: as a society, we need to wean ourselves off things that are killing our planet
  • new flavours, good stuff

BUT: thought experiment:

  • Would I prefer not to eat heavily processed foods? Yes
  • If the carbon footprint of meat could be reduced to something closer to plant-based burgers, using a combination of reduced frequency of consumption and hand-wavey magic, would that reduce my discomfort? Yes
  • In that situation, would I still eat meat, assuming it came from a source that wasn't unnecessarily cruel? Yes.
  • The big question: would I still feel uncomfortable about it? Yes.

Why my remaining discomfort? Because animals are, well, animals. They're people too. I've known a bunch of animals, and we're all people in different ways. That fact is hard to reconcile with eating them.

For me, I do continue to eat meat (although less than I used). But I think a lot of my discomfort around it - environmentally, the agro-industry, health - is displacement from the hard-to-digest fact that, when I've met a cow, they're super nice to hang out with, and I could see us being friends. And that feeling isn't going to go away.

I have a hunch that our inability to deal with the immensity of this gift - this animal-person who has been killed so I can have my dinner - means that, either deep down or out loud, we end up denying there's a gift or any kind of trade-off at all, hence the tribalism, and lack of sensible discussion, around the adjacent topics of health, carbon, and so on.

Or, to put it another way

The slip-sliding and dissembling around health benefits/carbon/etc makes me think that a bigger issue is being psychologically avoided. And for me, maybe that issue is "meat tastes great" vs "holy shit animals are people too" which is so hard to reconcile that it gets repressed, and repressed feelings come out in weird ways.

So here's my solution, because without addressing the core matter of co-personhood, nothing else will work

I like that being vegan is a movement, in a way that being vegetarian was a movement in the 1980s, or Atkins in the early 2000s. These are lifestyle choices that bring alignment with the body and the planet by promoting practice changes and introducing a new kind of mindfulness.

Could there be a similar movement that embraces some of the logic behind the Beyond Burger, but also includes meat?

Here's my suggestion:

  • a selective diet that is vegetarian except it allows meat when that meat is from a known local source, farmed with care, and not consumed with great frequency
  • when such meat is eaten, a prayer of gratitude is said to the animal

I am a big believer in vocalised gratitude as a means towards mindfulness, but mainly towards being able to accept the weight, meaning, obligation, and reciprocity of a gift.

Once gratitude is internalised and the gift of sacrifice is accepted, I've a feeling that the rest will fall into place. In short: a more balanced relationship between the food we need to live as individuals, and the planet we need to live together.

Ok so this is just saying grace. But oriented towards the animal.

I wonder if there could be a single phrase which expresses gratitude for the gift?

And something, unlike the traditional and passive For what we are about to receive..., that acknowledges my actions and choices that have brought about this meal of meat and all that it required? Said out loud, it would promote discussion and maybe even spread...

Grativore!

One year of Job Garden weeknotes, with links

I missed the anniversary: it's now week 61 of Job Garden. I write weeknotes on the Job Garden blog and they're invisible here, so to rectify that: here are links to all the posts to date. Expect a combination of feature releases and rambling tangents about the old days of the internet.

This is more for me than you, so I'll point out any particular post which I think is worth a read.

Until this point, Job Garden was personal: just a place for me to share jobs at companies I'm connected with in some way (i.e. that I've invested in either personally or more likely via R/GA Ventures, or ones I advise, or they're run by mates).

Now, as an experiment, since a few others had asked if they could also use Job Garden, I started opening it up a bit.

But still very much a hobby. That's one of the things I like about Job Garden: it's well within my comfort zone to build and design, so as a hobby it's perfect because it's about craft and doing things "properly"... and whether that means "100% working" or "opinionated" I'll leave open.

Here's a post in its own section because it still gets a bunch of traffic. So maybe you would like to read it too?

These next few months feel like their own chapter... adding a few more friends to garden their own job boards, and the general data and design improvements required in consequence:

Ah, and at this point Stella was born. So everything stopped until week 50.

That 17 week period - four and a bit months - was interesting (baby aside, which of course is interesting and joyful and awesome and all kinds of superlatives, but I'm talking about JG here) because it gave me room to think about Job Garden. And remember it's still a hobby at this point!

Coming into 2019, a handful of my users got in touch and asked for additional features. So I looked at what I'd built and I thought: it's rare that you make something that does a valuable thing and also people want to use it enough that they're requesting features. Then I thought: I should take this more seriously.

So the chapter that follows is the chapter of: work on Job Garden enough that I can tell whether or not to take it seriously.

I'm not on JG full time. I'm working on other things too. I get up at 6 and work on Job Garden then, and I work at night after the family have gone to bed. During the day I often work on JG but I also have other gigs, and I'm a parent too, and the parent bit gets priority.

Perhaps there's something commercial in Job Garden that doesn't compromise the value it provides to the startups I care about (that's one of our overriding principles. We've got 12.). Perhaps not, and if there's not then the worst thing that will happen is that we've built something good.

The goal for this year is to figure out whether there is something commercial and uncompromising there. If that's the case, I'll take JG seriously at that point.

So the rest of the weeknotes (till now, I guess) are in that chapter.

They are also less frequent, and seem to be more about feature releases although of course with regular tangents. Here:

That brings us up to date.

Reading all these weeknotes back, just now, it also feels like the end of a chapter, or at least a subchapter: having shipped autotags and the new design, Job Garden basically represents what was in my head pre week 1. Sure there needs to be more data on which to pivot, and more ways to receive alerts about new jobs, etc, and there is a ton to do around that, but that's all just a matter of colouring between the lines.

I feel like now everything's on the table; the basic Lego bricks have been made; the frame has been created. So it's time to figure out what to do with those pieces, and the motivations for what to prioritise from the roadmap (which is big believe me) will be different from what they've been so far.

Which means year 2 will feel different. Exactly how I'll have to see in next year's retrospective.

On the New Forest

Perhaps everyone has an ur-place--a place by which all others are understood--maybe they do and maybe they don't, but mine is where I grew up and it's the New Forest

(which isn't new, as it was founded 900 years ago, and it is barely a forest--mostly heath and scrub and copses)

I'm here now and I've been out for a run. I can't say I miss it when I'm not here, but when I come back to this landscape which is evidently imprinted deep in my psyche somewhere, my heart swells to bursting

so running is a matter of stumbling from one overwhelming heavenly moment heart bursts the pool of bluebells nestled under the tree! to another overwhelming heart bursts the sun beams dappling through the branches into the deep woods! to another...

till eventually on a bridleway on the open forest (which, so you can picture it, is low rolling heath with grass and ferns with gorse bushes and ponies and donkeys, going misty blue into the distance), running, I couldn't take it anymore, and stopped and looked at the grass

under my feet. The grass between the ferns and heather and gorse is cropped like a lawn, kept that way by the horses who live on the forest, and the grass of course is green but then you look at it, and I can't help but inventory the colours

grass green

lime

pale blue greens

sun-bleached yellow

deep moss green shadows, all of these blades of grass, all different

auburn tips of unfurling new shoots

deep brown, light beige

between: bone white

because the forest is on a chalk bed, so you get these startling whites, and the water when you see it runs crystal clear, chalk streams they're called, so the soil not just brown but grey and hazel

ceder

emerald

lichen--a pale fire

then: tiny: you don't notice them at first: lilac petals

These are the two shocking colours of the forest: tiny bright, secret purples foreshadowing the purple carpet of the heather that will come out in the autumn; and yellow, the bright yellow flowers of the gorse, a million points of light like the stars in the milky way

all over this infinity of greens and browns and whites, a full half of my gaze, the bottom half is green, and the top half blue--the sky--and to notice that the world, the regular old world, is painted in primary colours, I lose my breath again

So the rest of the run I alternate between stopping and looking at the plants, the horses, the horizon, getting lost in it--and sprinting as hard as I can, feeling the land and the sky in my legs and my lungs

If I showed you a picture it wouldn't make any sense. The real picture is the how it shaped me and what it feels like to come back, my own psychic contours exactly complemented and filled by the landscape I am in once again.

Calvino in Invisible Cities, after 55 magical descriptions of faraway places: Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice. His ur-place. The New Forest is mine.

Recipes for tandoori masala and chaat masala

It's been sunny which means it's BBQ season which means I need my chicken tikka fix which means it's spice mix time.

Here are some pictures on my Instagram.

Garam masala

I posted the garam masala recipe I use back in 2014 and I still use the same one. It's a great spice base, lots of texture, and I like the balance--it's not too peppery (which I find shop-bought ones can be).

(This isn't required for tikka but included here for completeness.)

Tandoori masala

I've adapted my tandoori masala blend from this chicken tandoori recipe on NDTV Food. I like it to have a BBQ taste to it, and that's done by going heavy on the cinnamon, fenugreek, and onions. I only recently discovered that British Indian curry houses absolutely load their dishes with dried fenugreek, and for better or worse I find the distinctive flavour really more-ish.

I feel like there should be paprika but I'm on the fence about the sweetness it would add. I'm still iterating this mix so maybe I'll include some next time.

There's no chilli. I add that separately.

The recipe:

  • Cinnamon, about 6 heaped tbsp when broken up
  • 1 tbsp black peppercorns
  • 15 green cardamom
  • 10 brown cardamom
  • 2 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 2 tbsp cumin seeds
  • 10 cloves
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 tbsp turmeric
  • 1 tbsp ground mace
  • 1 tbsp fenugreek seeds
  • 1 tbsp onion seeds

Prep: Toast (keep moving around in a hot, dry pan) until the aromas come out but careful not to burn. Leave in a dish to cool. Use a coffee grinder to grind though not the one you use for actual coffee.

Chaat masala

Chaat masala gives the tikka its distinctive tang, and that come mainly from amchoor. I've previously just bought chaat masala but substituted it pretty regularly (when I've run out) with amchoor or just citric acid.

So this summer I figured I would make my own blend and I've based it on this recipe:

  • 3 tbsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 1 1/2 tbsp saunf (fennel seeds)
  • 4 tablespoons amchoor (dried mango powder)
  • 3 tbsp black salt (I used 2 black salt, for smokiness, and 1 celery salt for tang)
  • 1 1/2 tsp black peppercorns
  • 1/4 tsp hing/asafetida powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp ginger powder
  • 1 tsp dried, powdered mint (I didn't have any of this on hand so skipped it, but will use next time)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ajwain (I use dried aniseed)

Prep as above.

Tikka marinade

I use these two blends to make chicken tikka. The marinade I use is from that NDTV Food recipe above but I'll repeat it here for reference:

  • 3 or 4 tsp red chilli paste
  • 3 tbsp ginger and garlic paste
  • 2 tsp chaat masala
  • 1 1/2 tsp tandoori masala
  • 1 tbsp oil
  • 3 tbsp natural yoghurt
  • 1/2 lemon (juiced)

Add the marinade to cubed chicken thighs, paneer, or shrimp. Mix well and leave in the fridge for a few hours or overnight. Cook as kebabs under the grill or on the BBQ.

What has the EU ever done for us? Some thoughts on a new mapping project

There’s a new project being shared round today that maps EU-funded projects in the UK: here it is. It’s easy to use and very interesting to find out, for example, what projects have been funded in my home town.

Kudos to the folks who built it. Creating sites like this is hard work, and a vital part of the national discussion about the EU.

So for transparency (which is a good thing) I’m hugely in favour of this.

But in terms of what I think about the EU funding itself, I’m not so sure. The strapline for the site is What has the EU done for your area? and while in one sense that’s true, it makes me think: but this was the UK’s money to begin with, right?

Looking at the breakdown of the EU membership fee, the UK paid £13.1bn into the EU budget in 2016, and received back £5.5bn in various forms of funding (£4.5bn channeled through the public sector, and approx. £1bn direct to the private sector). So the first thing the mapping project highlights is that the UK pays more to the EU than it "gets back."

That purely budgetary framing makes me uncomfortable. Should we really be looking at what we "get back" from the EU in terms of project funding? How do we value reduced friction to trade (and associated economic boost), the reduction in defence and diplomatic spending (by being part of a bloc), the cultural benefits of having a stronger voice on the world stage, etc.

What this mapping project also highlights is, well, should the EU be choosing how this money is spent at all? When money is spent directly by the UK government there is a certain amount of democratic accountability. I know who I can complain to, I know how I can try to influence the spending criteria, and I can campaign to vote out the people ultimately responsible if I really disagree.

But for EU spending? It’s more abstract. When I see this map of EU spending in the UK, what it makes me ask is why the UK government isn’t in charge of it. That same discomfort was, of course, a reason why people voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum. Although if the UK government controlled the spending, that doesn’t imply that it could all go the NHS instead--regardless of what was written on the side of a bus--as many of these projects are vital for our agriculture, regional growth, jobs, and industrial strategy, and you wouldn’t want to stop them. So leaving the EU wouldn’t mean we’d get this money "back" in the national budget by any means.

Now, on balance, I believe Brexit is a bad idea. The UK’s contribution to the EU is only 2% of our total national budget and, as I said, the "non-spending" benefits of EU membership matter significantly, and many of these projects would be funded anyhow.

But I’m not an unequivocal booster of everything the EU does. This mapping project is fixing a huge lack of transparency. The level of democratic accountability worries me: how do we know that all of these projects are within the mandate that we’ve given to the EU under the treaties, and how can we influence the allocations? I happen to believe that these problems are addressable as a member of the EU. (And to be honest, the same concerns could be levelled at the UK government about the project grants we do control.)

So while I’m pleased (and relieved) that this spending is broadly sensible, I’m not sure it should be waved around as "hey look at all this awesome stuff we’re getting from the EU." I don’t think that’s the case it makes at all.

--

My brand of weight-it-all-up ambivalence doesn’t play particularly well in this era of hyper-shareable Facebook posts and 24 hour news cycle sound bites.

However it’s by taking into account evidence like this that I’m able to say with increasing confidence that Brexit doesn’t add up. I look at what’s going on, consider alternatives, and... well, the Brexit options currently on the table look terrible, and the impending exit day of 2019 (which occurs well ahead of any trade deal being done) is so close with so little certainty around which to prepare that I fear a lot of damage and hurt will result.

It’s also this kind of easy-to-read evidence that we were lacking in the 2016 referendum, which is why I don’t think anyone (however they voted) really knew enough to make an informed decision, and why it’s perfectly ok to revisit the issue now and have a re-think before it’s too late. Given the circumstances it’s ok to change your mind.

That mapping project again: myeu.uk. More like this please!

I'm also blogging over at the Job Garden blog

It's been a little quiet on this site lately. A bunch of my writing energy has been going into weekly posts on the Job Garden blog.

Job Garden is a new kind of social job board. I started building it because I know a bunch of great startups, and I want to help them with their hiring. It's a real scratch-my-own-itch kind of thing. Right now on my personal job board there are 38 open roles at 12 companies, and you can check them out here.

It's only 12 weeks old. I try to add something to it every week. So this week: somebody other than me has created a job board. Last week: I launched weekly email updates of new jobs. The week before that, the ability to focus down on just London jobs.

It's super simple (the tech is entirely within my comfort zone), there's zero visual design, in terms of stage it's like pre-pre-alpha, and it's fun to stretch these muscles that haven't had a workout in a long ol' while.

The weekly posts can be a bit rambly, and occassionally stray into the realm of "half-thought-through opinions about code" which, who knows, might be entirely up your street.

To read from the beginning, the blog has a weeknotes categories.

Four short stories and what I learnt writing them

So I've now written FOUR whole stories for my short fiction writing group, Upsideclown. ICYMI in August last year, we started publishing again after a 14 year hiatus.

I wanted to collect links to my four stories in one place. = this blog post.

I wouldn't say I'm great at writing fiction. I find it tough. It is the easiest thing in the world for me to pick holes in what I've written. So instead, as an exercise--and as some personal positive reinforcement--I want to remind myself what I learnt writing each one, and also what I like.


Moving House (August 2017)

We sat atop Parliament Hill as the sun went down, London lapping at our feet, glass of wine in hand, a hard red line on the horizon fading not to black but the glow of LED streetlamps diffused through the humid breath of our ten million neighbours.

I love the way scenes ping pong between two different time periods, immediate and past, and I love the punchiness of last two lines.

But goodness is it dense like a compacted shit. You can tell that I hadn't written for years, and had been attempting to peristaltically emit this particular story for most of that time. The ideas are given zero room to breathe. When I read it back, there are concepts in shorthand that flower in my head--but there are no clues available for anyone else.

One thing I like:

  • In this story I managed to write dialogue for the first time ever. My way in was to reduce reporting to "said". I also (again for the first time) started thinking consciously about point of view: the POV character has no insight into what K-- is thinking (or doing while she is out of sight), and so neither does the reader.

The search for another intelligence (December 2017)

Bruno had been approached to do background colour for "3,114 B.C. and All That," an upcoming TV series on the conspiracy theories centred on that year. The dawn of the Mayan calendar; the mysterious construction of Stonehenge. Docu-entertainment. 'Docu-bullshit,' he had replied but he took the work. The chance to get closer to TV producers again, that had been why he did it.

Oh gosh I like this one. The best of the four.

This marks the first time I have ever written fiction in a conscious and deliberate fashion: I had an idea; realised it needed to cross over with an emotional journey so added that; sketched it out in a series of lines; blocked those lines out into scenes; wrote each scene properly; and then revised. It was also the first time I ever managed to write a story over approx. 1,000 words.

Previously all my writing has been automatic: wait for the muse, then type until my mind goes too fast for my hands or I need to pee. Great when it works, but a local maximum in terms of quality. My goal in writing with this group is to learn the craft.

I'm pleased at how the scenes work: I don't spend excess time getting into them (you know the Wadsworth Constant where you can no-fear skip the first 30% of any YouTube video? I tried to internalise that). And I tried to finish each on something that would provide impulse to read the following.

I spent time working on the characters for this one. I have an idea about who Bruno and Hope are, with character notes too. I was brutal with myself about making sure I understood their motivation at every point-and then being rigorous to ensure that every other action was true to that required motivation.

The ending is poignant, although maybe a little cheap.

It's also exposition heavy. The story doesn't work without a ton of explaining. And given that the emotional journey leans heavily on human fundamentals... well, I perhaps should be stretching myself more. Pop songs are always love songs. But there are maybe more interesting anchors.

Still, it works, and if I would change anything it would be to make it slightly less abrupt in places, and to ease up on the background. As yet I lack the skill to revise (I can tweak words but I haven't figured out how to have the distance to re-write scenes) but this is one I'll come back to.


The Ursa Major Moving Group (March 2018)

It happened regularly, thought Ant, this premonition of the end of living, the Grim Reaper's breath every six months or so, and every time it left Ant untethered and terrified, driven to his studio to use his eyes and use his hands. Twice a year or more he was picked off his feet by who-knows-what and swept up the beach, left gasping when the wave retreated, shivering and exposed.

As his own death had become a familiar acquaintance, at some point in the last decade, layered underneath as the swell is beneath the waves, Ant had met something slower and longer, tidal and from beyond the horizon, something entirely deadlier and more final, the echo from the deep future of the end of humanity itself.

Good grief I hated writing this story.

I had something written in my notes--a pun on an astronomical feature, the Ursa Major Moving Group--and it lodged in me to the point that literally nothing else could get out of my fingers. So this took a month to force out.

Building on the previous stories, I used outlines and characters... but really Ant is the only one I understand. Even he doesn't have much depth.

Is it any good? Who the hell knows. I like the first half. The second half--which bounds forward I'm not kidding 10,000 years in nine short scenes-is far, far too dense. This second half is framed almost entirely in a dream, and this was a solution to a particular conundrum. But it doesn't feel nearly hallucinatory enough to be believable, or have enough story for you to get engaged in it for its own sake.

The conundrum was how to reach a particular concluding feeling that Ant has of betrayal, envy, and acceptance. You know, I think it works for that. I've been fascinated for a while by the story of Augustus and Caesarion and how it might have actually felt--I'm not quite there, but it's a rich seam.

So what I liked here? There was a certain complicated feeling I wanted to arrive at. Tick.


Volume Five (May 2018)

At 3am he woke up with the heavy taste of whisky still in his mouth, cheek stuck to the pillow. Sophie was in the other room, in their bedroom. The flat was quiet. The streetlamp outside shone through the naked window onto the diary left open on the spare room bed.

It was the fifth volume. He didn't remember looking at that. It was open to the page for June 5th, one week from today's date.

Leo blinked gummy sleep from his eyes. Where the page should have been blank, there was a single sentence: Leo gets a job.

This story went up a couple days back so maybe I don't have the distance... but I'm kinda not a fan, and kinda totally am. It mundane; the characters are one-dimensional; there's nothing clever about how the narrative works; I wrote it in a rush.

But. But there's an actual story here. It's not a story that relies on my usual cheap go-tos: huge epiphany; lengthy exposition; plumbing the depths of human agony and/or ecstasy. That was the challenge I set myself-to tell a good old fashioned story with zero frilly bits-and it's the first time I've managed to do that. (Well, actually I wanted to write a ghost story, avoiding sci-fi, and while it's not quite a ghost story it is in the right direction.)

Technically I enjoy the way the scenes move. My sketched outline had more detail, but the final story hides and reveals, hides and reveals, in a way that propels it along. That's a little bit of craft I've picked up from the previous three stories, and it felt easier this time.

What don't I like? The characters and their motivations could be better understood. The situations could have more texture. Structurally something more exotic could be going on. The emotional journey could wrestle a little with the narrative.

In particular, the words could use poetry. My self-set personal challenge has been to steer clear of fancy words. Abandon any and all crutches to force me to concentrate on story and dialogue. I think, over the last year and these four stories, I've done that enough... but now I find myself wondering where my voice is and how to reintroduce it. It's one thing writing blog posts, like this, but I'd love to find the same fluency and style in fiction over which I deliberate.


Enough with the self congratulatory introspection.

TL;DR: I'm enjoying writing again enormously. I feel like I'm learning some lego bricks that with a bunch more practice might one day evolve into actual craft. Hopefully a few people are enjoying reading these stories too.


Hey and let me not take away from the other authors! There are SEVEN of us in the writing group, six who are writing regularly. Check out the whole archive since the reboot. It is legit good shit.

What's changing in property and the thought process behind working with a couple of startups in the recent program

The accelerator finished last week and my latest cohort of startups has flown the nest. Insert shedding-a-tear emoji here. I'm super proud. And a personal milestone: that makes 20 startups I'm connected with, either directly or via R/GA Ventures.

Campaign magazine did a great write-up and video of pitch day. Campaign noticed that five of our nine startups were pitched by women founders. A shift towards normality after last year's male-skewed cohort, but still not representative of the real world: ignore the presenters themselves and look at the companies in their entirety. Only five of the nine startups have women in the founding teams. It should be all nine. There's work to be done.


Here's a puzzle. What connects these two startups, both in the 2018 program:

  • Beringar which measures and helps optimise productivity in commercial real estate (like offices and hospitals) using sensors on the ceiling and a machine learning back-end. The business model is hardware-enabled SaaS.
  • CupClub which is on a mission to eliminate single-use food packaging, starting with coffee cups. Initial customers are businesses with internal cafés, and they pay a competitive per-drink price for reusable cups and a wash/return service.

The rationale I gave to the R/GA Ventures investment committee was the same in both cases.


The logic goes something like this...

Commercial real estate is changing. The days of the 25 year lease are over. We're seeing the WeWork-isation of everything. By which I mean, instead of long leases, we see not 5 or even 3 years, but companies moving to annual or month-by-month leases. This provides flexibility (reduced risk, ability to grow) plus access to pooled services normally only available to much larger firms.

Why is this happening? We can guess. My hunch is that it's to do with Ronald Coase and the internet. In 1937 Coase asked why firms exist. If the free market is so great, why bundle together everything from finance to marketing to tech inside one company; why not do everything by contracting out to the market? The answer is that the free market isn't free. There's a cost associated, and firms exist to make everything inside them cheaper.

But then the internet happened. Transaction cost dropped precipitously. Now firms can be smaller than ever before. Consider startups: everything is outsourced except core activities. Finance, HR, marketing operations, customer support, etc. Tons has been taken over by software (or rather, by the people at external firms who provide the software).

(Here's me rambling about Coase in 2014.)

So firms are smaller and more nimble than ever.

Aside: I think the same dynamic is responsible for the fact that some firms are more_gigantic_than ever. There's a bimodal distribution. Another effect is the growth of freelancers as a mode of employment, and what is either called the sharing or gig economy depending on the class of the worker: "sharing" if it's rich people renting out their homes on Airbnb; "gig" if it's working class people renting out their bikes and their sweat.

These firms pop into and pop out of existence. They don't want 25 year leases. They don't want to do fit-out, or manage their own office services.

This trend (here's my guess) is only going to continue.


Assuming this is true, what are the implications?

One shift I think we're seeing is that property owners are no longer planning (as much) on making their profit from rent. Instead rent should get them merely to break-even. Profit comes from selling services to their tenants.

These services have healthier margins than property, and they're charged on a recurring basis. Services like the usual ones: gas, electricity, cleaning, security. Then also higher-level services... like office productivity, and coffee. Bingo.


The shift is parallel to what happened in the consumer space. FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) used to sell to consumers via supermarkets, unit by unit. Marketing was focused on keeping consumers loyal to the brand. We're in the middle of a shift to subscriptions--look at my oft-referred-to purchase of subscription shaving supplies co Dollar Shave Club by trad FMCG giant Unilever for $1BN. Marketing is now focused on customer acquisition, and highly targeted.

As it is in the consumer product space, and as it happened in the software space (from boxed software to SaaS) and also media (from DVDs to Netflix), so (I believe) it's happening in the property space. A shift to a services model.


What Beringar and CupClub have in common, for me, is that they are both beneficiaries--and will continue to be beneficiaries--of this property trend.

  1. They are both services targeting businesses, charged on a recurring basis
  2. They are likely to be resold by property owners to their tenants. That is, for both startups, landlords are channel

There were other reasons to invest, to be sure, but I made this same argument for both of them, and I get a kick out of that.


Is this all correct? Honestly? Who knows. It's a hunch.

It's useful to have a hunch about the bigger picture, because then my hunch-making muscles get some feedback. I have a similar hunch about all of the startups I've worked with. Sometimes it's obvious, sometimes it's not. Once you have a hunch you can build models and do research to check assumptions. Hopefully over time my hunches will get better.

I'm guessing that to proper investors (I just play one on TV, as they say) this kind of thinking is painfully obvious, so apologies for talking about how to suck eggs.

Mid-program reflections #5 – accelerators, corporates, and an ambition to become the Innovation Partner of Record

It's Wednesday of week 12, which means the big pitch event that we've all been working towards is tomorrow morning. The pitch decks for each of the nine companies are looking great. There's been a ton of practice. The attendee list is also looking good. The program team around me is working super hard.

Accelerators usually end in something called Demo Day. Everyone pitches. Everyone claps. In theory it's great networking and a kick-off for investment, but my feeling is it's more of a finish line to the program. Everything has to be done by this date. No loose ends in the business plan, or the articulation of the product. Demo Day is a forcing function. The real work happens next, so the past couple of weeks I've been saying to the founders they should fill the week following the program with investor meetings.

The risk is that because the program is so full on, you take a breather in the week following. Then you arrange meetings, and the emails take a week to get through then a week to arrange. Then suddenly it's a month later, and you can no longer say as your opening gambit "so, a lot has changed in the last three months."

Pace yourself. I can't remember who described to me closing an investment round as "sprinting to the start of a marathon" but it's true for finishing these programs too.


This will be the final mid-program reflections piece.

I've been thinking about the other side of the value equation: what do corporate partners and sponsors get out of these programs?

Here are all the posts so far:

  1. The story so far
  2. How to run Founder Stories
  3. Startup cadence vs agency cadence
  4. Six thoughts about Office Hours
  5. Can agencies become the Innovation Partner of Record? (This post)

Bonus post from 2017:

Here's my PR tip for people (like me) who are terrible at PR a.k.a. the Tick-Tock List


According to a government report in April this year, there are 163 startup accelerators in the UK. Here's the original report (it's comprehensive) prepared by Nesta.

Half of these 163 are corporate backed.

Helpfully, the report gives reasons why a big ol' corporate would want to back an accelerator. Benefits:

Rejuvenating corporate culture to create an entrepreneurial mindset among employees

Creating an innovative brand that attracts customers, business partners and future employee

Solving business problems quicker and at lower risk

Expanding into future markets by accessing new capabilities or channels

Which, yes ok, I buy:

It's all about innovation.


I believe-although I can't prove-that over the 15 years I've been working in it, innovation has become more central to more businesses. It used to be buried in R&D departments (engineering) or "Labs" (often marketing). Now it's at the top of an organisation.

Why? Again, only a guess, but for what it's worth here's my take: technology continuously changes and creates new opportunities; a market of technology-native companies means both the competitive landscape and consumer expectations also change rapidly. Innovation is how to keep up and get ahead.

Aside:

A friend told me this, probably apocryphal, story about British Sugar. British Sugar processes beets. They are the sole purchaser of sugar beet in the UK. How much they pay and how much they buy is specified in legislation. How much the sugar sells for, and how much is produced, is similarly on a quota. Consultants are brought in periodically to find optimisations in the business.

One day one bright individual realised that the by-product of sugar manufacture is hot air. What needs hot air? Greenhouses. Tomatoes. So now British Sugar is the largest producer of supermarket-sold tomatoes in the UK. I am assured this story is legendary in management consulting circles and held up as the pinnacle of consultant achievement.

I just googled to check veracity. No luck. But I did discover that British Sugar is switching from cultivating tomatoes to cultivating cannabis.


Despite my 15 years in the innovation game, I couldn't tell you with any authority what it means.

I can tell you the results. The results of a business innovating are things like:

  • growing a new part of the business which has a new business model, for example using subscriptions instead of product sales
  • switching to new technology that cuts operating costs
  • learning how to reach consumers in a new way

It's harder than you would think for an established company to do these. Companies are optimised to continue doing what they already do. They are intricate machines and so, in order to maintain smooth-running of the machine, individuals are discouraged from arbitrarily changing what they do day-to-day.

Yes, a good business will always be looking for "new ways of doing things." But new ways are non-obvious because the machine cuts across lots of people who may not even know one-another. And even when discovered, there are vested interests in the old ways: it's not easy to sit in a meeting and propose, say, automation or a website to replace multiple Excel spreadsheets, when that means your buddy over the table is going to be put out of a job.

All of which is to say: discovering new ways is tough.

So innovation itself is not the result, but a whole grab-bag of processes to get there. Such as:

Plus old-school R&D, plus simply working to invent and launch a new product and service, plus communicating new ideas, plus changing employee incentives to encourage new approaches... Etc.

And of course: working with startups.

Startups are technology-native. They make decisions with a customer-first mindset, prepared to sacrifice product, strategy, and existing practices if that means serving the customer better (to me, this is why startups differ from incumbants. It's a fundamental difference in organisation). They embody "new ways of doing things." Simply exposing corporate employees to the startup mindset can be transformative!

But there's often hand-holding required to get corporates and startups to spend time together, let alone work together. And, even when the benefit of working together is clear from the outside, corporates--as I said earlier--resist new ways.

The job of an accelerator is to reduce that friction. Accelerators help corporates innovate using startups.


Are accelerators effective at helping corporates innovate?

Well that's a different question.

Ideally what we'd see, in addition to the accelerator itself, is corporate engagement like:

  • understanding the challenges and 2 year roadmaps of different business units, and sharing these with startups
  • exercises to "roleplay" a corporate working with a startup, to see if procurement and contracting can be updated
  • startup mentoring being taking seriously by HR as personal development and also talent retention
  • incentives given for meaningful pilots and startup partnerships
  • acquisitions

But we don't, not always. Some corporates do some of these; all could be doing more.

I think: accelerators are not as effective as they could be. Too often, accelerators are considered in isolation from other innovation processes. Innovation is poorly coordinated, done piecemeal, and best practice is not shared enough.


There's a phrase in the marketing world which has dropped out of fashion. Agency of Record:

In the world of marketing and advertising, Agency of Record (AOR) was typically understood to mean a single agency responsible for all the services that a particular business might require. These services traditionally included brand strategy, creative and media placement, but today, can include a mix of other services as well, such as interactive media, web development services and digital marketing.

Advantages (see the above-linked article) include effective strategy; ownership; efficiency; trust.

However,

more businesses now rely on a mix of different agencies to provide various specialized services.


My take is that what we need to start thinking about, for effective, coordinated innovation, is Innovation Partners.

Instead of a corporate having multiple strands of research, new product development, startup outreach, and so on, this should be coordinated by let's say a VP Innovation. Their job is to set strategy and to coordinate. Also to choose when to do work internally, and when to bring in partners. This role already exists, and I think it's important to separate it out: corporates shouldn't be innovating the whole time, in every area. Sometimes they should simply be executing in an excellent way. The job of the VP Innovation is to choose when and how to shake things up.

This points at a possible future for the traditional agency.

Given agencies are already tasked with finding new ways to communicate with consumers; to work on new products and services; on organisation change and digital transformation; on startup outreach, I feel there's a new way to package this and also solve the innovation effectiveness problem:

I'm saying agencies should step from the pier to the boat and call their role what it has already become: the stated ambition of the agency of tomorrow should be to become Innovation Partner of Record.

A new phrase for an old relationship. This is what I've been calling it in my notes, and I think it makes sense.

By which I mean: an agency should aspire to consult directly to the VP Innovation on all the innovation processes a corporate undertakes. Sometimes the individual projects will be run internally, sometimes the go-to provider will be the partner of record, and sometimes by a specialist in the partner's network will be brought it.


Translate this back to accelerators: a startup accelerator should not be run on its own, but as part of a package that includes internal comms and strategy; an audit of procurement processes; events and external comms to increase dealflow; and so on, and so on.

Thinking about my own program, this is why the Services phase is so important: the brand, visual identity, and messaging work is not merely value-add creative services for the startups in the program. It's work to make the startups understandable and easy to work with for the corporate partners attached to the program, and is a big part of what makes the Venture Studio model effective.

To my mind, we're still at the beginning of understanding all of this.


R/GA Ventures is the innovation and investment arm of R/GA. Behind the scenes these programs are not just about running the core startup accelerators. In the programs which have corporate partners, there's already strategy work to understand business unit needs and build towards meaningful collaborations. As we learn more, the process develops.

Of all the agencies I've seen, R/GA is the closest to realising the "Innovation Partner of Record" goal.

So I'll wrap up with a quick pitch: if you're a VP Innovation or similar, you should talk to R/GA Ventures about running a program.

Not least because if run it in London you'll get me as program MD, and that would be neat.

Mid-program reflections #4 – six thoughts about Office Hours

I meet with each of the nine startups for an hour every week. The session is called "Office Hours" and I'm pretty sure that all startup accelerators do something like this.

For me, it's about founder coaching and generally making sure each team is getting the most out of the program.

I first saw how this works because of Jon Bradford. I was lucky enough to sit in on his Office Hours sessions in 2014 when he was MD with Techstars London. I've developed my own style since. All the good bits are from Jon.

"MD" stands for "Managing Director."


What does a program Managing Director do? I can't tell you in general, but I can say what I do.

I lead on outreach and then selecting the startups. I make the case to the rest of the team about why each startup is worth investment, and I have a thesis about what's happening in the market. I lead on deal negotiation, and I coordinate the legal team.

Programming: I work closely with the Program Director, Lisa Ritchie, and her program team. In theory I'm backstop if there's trouble, but there's been little of that: Lisa both runs a tight ship, and thinks imaginatively ahead of the puck. So I'm consulted only as needed, usually as a startup is being handed off between the different parts of the program. Because of my design consultancy background, I'm a second pair of eyes on the briefs for the agency-led Services phase. I bring in much of the network of experts and advisors, and founders for Founder Stories sessions.

I run Office Hours. I coach the startups when they're in the room, and evangelise for them outside it.


These reflections are about Office Hours. Although this is the ninth paragraph, it was the final paragraph written. I finished writing this post, read it through, then came back here to give you a warning: there are too many words, and I have that horrible deer-in-the-headlights feeling I sometimes get when doing public speaking that, holy shit, everything I'm saying is obvious and asinine. So I'm going to do what I usually do when that feeling comes on, which is to double down and barrel on.


I estimate that I've led or sat in on 250 hours of Office Hours sessions. This doesn't include advisory sessions or board meetings. I don't feel that 250 hours is enough to get good at it.

Also: who the hell am I to be giving advice? I'm less successful at the startup game than a lot of the people I meet with, and with the rest that's only because they're just getting started. But I've seen a lot.

So given I don't feel particularly good at it, I keep notes of approaches that seem to work. This is something I've been doing for a couple of years, on and off: privately journaling at the end of the week about working practice and team dynamics.

Then I come back to the approaches later. I don't mean to follow them slavishly. Only that, in a session, I try to remain conscious of them rather than reacting in the moment.


Six things I try to keep in mind while I'm running an Office Hours session:


1. Do they know how to run the room?

My first session is about us getting to know each other, and talking about what we can expect from Office Hours. After that, I start by asking a question: what's one great thing and one challenging thing that's happened over the last week. (Then we dig into the challenging thing.)

About halfway through the program, I put more of the agenda in the hands of the founders: at the beginning of the meeting I get them to write the agenda up on the whiteboard. This becomes habit pretty quickly. If I'm not clear what a topic is, or what kind of response I'm being asked for, I say.

Much of any founder's time will be spent meeting advisors and investors. There's a knack to running the room and getting what you want out of it, while maintaining a feeling of collaboration and conversation. Meetings aren't just time you spend in a room together. Meetings are an atomic unit of work. They should have purpose and outcomes, although these don't necessarily need to be stated. There are lots of small ways to make sure attendees don't drift or feel lost.

Most of the founders I work with already know how to run a room. At which point, reassured, we can go back to chatting.


2. Am I thinking a couple weeks ahead?

We provide a bunch of programming to the startups, and I want to make sure it's effective.

For example, ahead of "mentor" meetings with experts and advisors, we discuss how to pitch (5 minutes to intro the company, then dig deep into one or two issues. They may have to work to make it useful). During the Services phase, I try to bring up the differences between how agencies work and how startups work, and also how to integrate the deliverables.

Absent anything else, I think ahead to the eventual pitch deck. I'm imagining the slides. If there's not yet a strong traction slide, I work backwards through sales and then to processes around customer development, and guide the conversation to those topics.

Because of this, I need to have a strong opinion about where the company should go and how it will get there. I spend a lot of my time between Office Hours thinking about this. This isn't so that I can say there is a "right" or "wrong" answer, it's so I can have a good understanding of the complexity of what they are taking on. Rather than "correct" or "incorrect," it's useful to feel out decision qualities such as "ability to easily iterate" or "here be layers of unconscious assumptions and hope."

Founders are very convincing people, so I have to watch for where an argument is strong because of good analysis versus mere charisma. Sometimes founders convince even themselves. There's a knack to jumping between sharing visions of the future and robust self-honesty.

My personal mantra is: strong opinions, weakly held. I have to remember that my view is secondary to what the founder and the team wants. Of course my opinion might be that the founder is missing something, so I have to satisfy myself that their decision is made with a good process. (And sometimes the choice is between two routes and the answer is: do whatever you're ok waking up at 4am and thinking about for the next 4 to 7 years.)


3. Why hasn't the founder answered this question already?

These founders are some of the brightest people I've met. If anyone has the mindset to tackle any challenge they meet, it's them.

So when a question is brought to Office Hours, I try to ask myself why the answer is not obvious to the founder. I try not to immediately answer it myself.

(There's another reason why I shouldn't leap to answering questions, in that the founder has been closer to and thinking more deeply about their startup than I ever will. In the end, all I really have is a perspective.)

Why might a founder ask a question?

There might be a knowledge, skills, or experience gap. This is possible. I think to myself why they have not worked it out with friends or google. We can figure out an approach together, and what I try to do then is ask smaller questions which will lead the founder to the answer for themselves.

A second possibility is that the higher-level framework has something missing. A question about, say, which product features to highlight on the homepage should be obvious given a validated model of the customer and an understanding of product differentiation. And those should be possible to figure out given their priors: in this case, a process of having a business model hypothesis and testing it by speaking to customers and investors.

So a question from a founder is a chance to dig upwards to these frameworks. Frameworks aren't axioms. They can and should change, but always deliberately.

The important thing here is not the answer, but the ability to deconstruct the question, to ask it intelligently, and to discuss it. If a question can be treated like this, then it can be worked on by the founder with their team and with their advisors--all people who are much smarter and more experienced than me. A question answered by instinct can't involve and take the benefit of all the smart people around us.

A third possibility is that the answer is clearly evident, but there is some personal or team resistance to seeing it. A resistance comes about often because the answer implies something undesirable. You'd be surprised how often this happens, or maybe you wouldn't. If it's a single founder, some possibilities are that:

  • the answer might imply something that conflicts with the founder's self-image
  • the answer might reveal an undesirable kind of hard work: it's preferable to do the all-consuming and intellectual hard work of grinding through product development, versus the emotionally scary work of sales and possible rejection (for example)
  • like all answer, this answer means bringing an idea into reality, which is terrifying: all ideas are perfect; reality is at best mundane and at worst can fail

So in this case, I try to help the founder be clear-eyed about what an answer means.

If it's a team, these different viewpoints can be embodied in different team members. This is not necessarily a conflict. One member might be not surfacing the answer because they imagine another team member is highly invested in a different approach. Possibilities are unvoiced from an overabundance of care. My job here is to help them become a functional team, and one way to do that is to illustrate the power of saying conflicting viewpoints out loud. So I try to point of differences of opinion. Just because differences of opinion have been unearthed does not mean they need to be resolved. Differences can be tolerated and embraced. (Although courses of action, once decided, need commitment.)

I have a hobby interest in small group dynamics, so I love these sessions intellectually. Though they are the hardest to work.


4. There is often a crisis. Fixing the issue is not my job.

A special type of Office Hours is when there's a crisis. I would characterise a crisis as any time the founder brings urgency into the room--whether it's good or bad. There are times when sales are going just too well! "A great problem to have" can trigger a panicked response just as a more existential crisis such as an unhappy team.

I have to remind myself that fixing the issue is not my primary job. Participating in panic validates panic as a response. But if a startup responded to every crisis with panic, nothing would get done. (I would characterise panic as short-termist thinking, accompanied by a stressed and unpleasant emotional state.)

What makes this challenging is that I often know what they're going through. Sometimes I recognise a situation and my own emotional memories well up. There have been sessions where my heart races, or my palms sweat, or I look from team member to team member and wonder if they realise the dynamic they've found themselves in.

So before we talk about the issue, I try to find the appropriate emotional response: enthusiastically cheer first sales (but don't sit back on laurels); get pissed off about bad news but move on with good humour; treat obstacles with seriousness but don't over-generalise. It's a marathon not a sprint, and so on.

Then use the situation to talk tactics and build some habits. I like to encourage:

  1. Writing things down. Startups are not about product, they are about operationalising sales of that product. Operationalising means there is a machine. The minimum viable machine is a google doc with a checklist. The sales process can be a checklist. HR can be a checklist. Bookkeeping can be a checklist. When things don't work, revise the checklist. Eventually, turn it into software and people following specific job objectives. This is how (a) the startup can scale where revenue scales faster than cost of sale; and (b) the founder can one day take a holiday.
  2. A habit of momentum. I forget who said to me "first we figure out how to row the boat, then we choose the direction" but movement is a team habit. If, in every meeting, i respond to a business update with "so, what are you doing about that" then that expectation of action will eventually get internalised

I find these viewpoints sink in better when they're using in responding to a crisis.

I also like to encourage self-honesty. Sometimes my job is to say out loud things which are unsaid. Founders are very good at being convincing (both themselves and others) otherwise they wouldn't be founders. Sometimes that data that doesn't fit the narrative is left out... to others and to themselves. So I can help break that down.

There will be crises and crises and crises. But we only have these Office Hours for 12 weeks. If we concentrate on fixing just today's issue, we miss the opportunity to build habits that can handle tomorrow's.


5. Am I being useful right now?

As much as the above is useful in the long-term, there has to be a balance: these sessions should also tackle the issues brought into the room. In the last few weeks of the program, I find that we spend more and more time on day-to-day business issues. The founders have figured out how to get what they need out of me. And if they can do it with me, my hopes are high they can do it with anyone.

What do we look at? An iteration of the pitch deck. A run-through of the sales process. How to hear a "no" as a description of what a customer wants, and to use it to win the sale. Examples of pipelines and proposals. The agenda for a weekly growth meeting. Showing how the almost identical pitch deck can be re-pitched with added intensity if you pay attention to emotional narrative and rhetoric. Investor motivations.

I'm not an expert, but I do a lot of things a little bit, so I can be a useful second pair of eyes.

(I pay attention when the same topic comes up more than once and try to understand why the founder has not instinctively generalised.)

Also towards the end of the program, I get more open about some of my approaches above. The sessions get more and more collaborative. In the end I'm learning quite a lot.


6. If nothing comes up, getting to know each other is great.

I want to make it very clear that all the good stuff you see is entirely down to the startups themselves. Advice is bullshit. The bar I set myself is: can this hour be more effective than the hour they would otherwise spend building their business. Almost certainly not.

As I said above, the founder has been thinking way more about their company and their market than I have. There are experts out there far smarter than me. But there's a bigger point:

I have to remind myself it's not my company. I don't make the decisions. In the event that I do recommend a direction, I remind myself that I mustn't get offended if they don't take my advice. (It's a natural and human response to be offended when offered office is not taken.) It's not that I ought not be offended--it's that being offended would be a category error. The material I work with is the actions of the founder. The material isn't right or wrong, it simply is.

A good way to do all of the above--to react appropriately, to coach good habits, and to be useful--is for the founder, team, and me to get to know one another. The better you know each other's values, the higher the information content of any given interaction. So sometimes the best thing to do is to hang out.


Reading these reflections, I sound, even to myself, like a pompous arse. I mean, there's a very good chance that I am a pompous arse, which would be the reason why.

Honestly mostly the sessions are just chatting. I work hard to make them useful chatting, and yes I probably overthink it. My Office Hours will be more useful to some founders than to others. And I sure a lot of people, in my shoes, would do a much better job and wouldn't indulge themselves with endless introspection.

Amateur hour coaching, that's all it is.

This feeling is so strong that I think I will have to warn readers somewhere near the top. Say, around the ninth paragraph.


Here's a quote from Bob Shaw's short story "Call me Dumbo," found in the collection Tomorrow Lies in Ambush.

An aircraft factory is a machine for producing aeroplanes and it may be disastrous to attempt to improve production by piecemeal tinkering with individual departments--one must seek out in all its ramifications, and destroy, the machine for stopping the production of aeroplanes, which lurks like a parasite within the organisation.

I love this way of thinking.

Let's start from the perspective that a startup is a machine for growing. But there are obstacles which temper the growth. Our job, together, is to identify and to remove the invisible anti-growth machine.

The end of week 10.