Log Book I: Europe

Full disclosure. It was hard writing this post. Having travelled across Europe for six months on a quest to find best practices, current trends and common challenges in social enterprise support has been one of the most rewarding, humbling, exciting, exhausting and growth experiences of my career. But sitting down and trying to capture it all on a few pages is a daunting task. I want to share all the enthusiasm, the learning, the information overload, early-morning train rides, sore feet and sugar lows with you all without making this sound like some “final report”. Because a report wouldn’t do this adventure justice. It is a snapshot at best, a flicker of an image of social enterprise support in Europe in 2015. By the time I am done typing, it will be outdated and we are ready to move on to the next adventure. This Log Book is the first in a series of snapshots of social enterprise support around the world. I am currently interviewing Social Venturers in the US and am headed down under in spring. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Here’s Log Book I: Europe.

map-001

Social Venturers

In January 2015 I set out in search of best practices and common challenges in capacity building for social entrepreneurs. Mostly, I was keen on meeting the people behind the scenes: professionals who design and implement support programs for social entrepreneurs. I call them Social Venturers. I wanted to hear their views of the sector, what works and what doesn’t; I wanted to learn more about their programs – what happens outside of websites and annual reports, I was looking for insights and connections not captured by research surveys. I wanted to hear what program teams considered current trends and challenges. I wanted to learn a lot!

After six months, I had interviewed more than 30 Social Venturers at  27 support organizations for social entrepreneurs across Europe. With my red backpack – I named him Spivet after this adventurous explorer – I got on 11 flights, slept in 23 different beds at friends’ houses, AirBnBs and hostels. I covered 3.200 km by train and another 1.150 km by car and bus to speak to Social Venturers in Ireland, the UK, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands. My longest travel day took me from Edinburgh via Manchester to Amsterdam Schiphol where I caught the train to Rotterdam to interview Enviu and Outside Inc. before getting on another train to Utrecht (where I spent the night to return to Amsterdam the following day). In Amsterdam – fun fact – I marched over 10 km in one day to have three interviews across the city; that night I crashed in a hostel bunk bed exhausted. But excited.

stage and length long

I was particularly interested in speaking to organizations that offer structured capacity building for social entrepreneurs. For my research that means analyzing and interviewing 14 accelerators, six incubators, and a mix of competitions, university programs, summer schools and consultancies.

Locality matters.

Our digital age of cloud computing, social networks and mobile technology has made starting a business a lot cheaper, no doubt. We no longer face high up-front investments into brick and mortar business structures only to test and validate/belie minimum viable products. But don’t be fooled. Local support organizations and networks are key to helping fledgling social entrepreneurs off the ground. Bastian Mueller at Yunus Social Business pointed out: “Our program success hinges on supporters in the local scene to act as early adopters, mentors, customers and investors.” When I visited Oxford for a day, I experienced a thriving ecosystem of social enterprises, co-working spaces, colleges and the Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University working in synergy, making Oxford one large breathing organism of social impact. In Scotland I spoke to Lindsay Chalmers at the Edinburgh Social Enterprise Network which has managed to not only promote social entrepreneurship, but grow this sector through public awareness raising, advocacy and educating consumers about the social impact of their purchasing decisions. In 2015, Edinburgh counted 200 social enterprises employing 1,220 paid staff and over 6,000 volunteers (ESEN 2015). 94% of Edinburgh’s social enterprises generated an income equivalent to US$184m from trading activities – a close to 300% increase from 2012/13. The backbone of this strong growth trend is the support program of Edinburgh Social Enterprise Network and its partners who provide training and resources to local social entrepreneurs.

Success factors

I like asking about success factors. It doesn’t sound sexy, I agree. But my brain being wired as it is, that’s how I think about the secret sauce of social startup support. In each interview there comes the moment where I get to ask the person opposite me “So… what do you think makes a program effective in empowering social entrepreneurs?”, and while the answers vary, three themes stood out to me across all interviews in Europe: facilitation over curriculum teaching, founders’ personal development and leading by example as a support intermediary.

Facilitation. At Unltd’s Big Social in London in January 2015, the main questions circled around whether to offer generalized training to as many social founders as possible, or focus on individualized support to selected individuals. Throughout my trip I found that the majority of support organizations have embarked on a third route. They make resources accessible for founders to self-select what to study up about, and act as facilitators. “Social entrepreneurs that join our program come equipped with very different skill sets and backgrounds, so we focus on what they need help with at any given point in time.” explained Mareike Mueller at Social Impact Lab Berlin. Similar words from Richard Brownsdon at Impact Hub Westminster: “I believe in just-in-time learning. During the startup phase, founders simply don’t have the time to learn about topics that aren’t relevant to them at the time. We give them support when they need it.”

Support topics

This trend towards facilitation also shows in how Social Venturers perceive their role in working with startups. Kristina Notz at Social Entrepreneurship Akademie in Munich views her job as “asking the right questions, questions that identify the blind spots.” and otherwise “giving founders the mental space for testing and learning.” Birgit Schunke at Heldenrat – a pro-bono consultancy for social initiatives and entrepreneurs in Germany – said: “Every individual or organizations we work with come to us with a different need. Our role is not to solve their problem, but to help them develop their own ideas. We believe that founders already have the answers, we help them get to that realization, and access this knowledge.” The team around Kaat Peeters at Sociale Innovatiefabriek in Belgium takes the facilitation-approach to a whole new level: In their program, social innovators support each other. With an alternative currency-system in place, Sociale Innovatiefabriek provides training templates and content, but the actual mentoring takes place among peers. “Social entrepreneurs can better relate to each other’s challenges, make relevant connections and have credibility as mentors.” The program team supports them where necessary, while their peer-system has given rise to a tight community and strong network with external experts, both of which last way beyond the program itself.

Support services

Founder development. Kai Hockerts at Copenhagen Business School explained to me where he sees the biggest hurdle for the social enterprise sector: “We aren’t short of people from the social sector but they often lack entrepreneurial/managerial training. As a leader of any organizations you are responsible for the people around you; at the same time you can barely share your concerns with anyone (investors, beneficiaries, employees). We need to invest more in developing leadership skills.” Siobhan O’Keeffe at Social Entrepreneurs Ireland thinks along the same lines: “We focus on turning social entrepreneurs into strong leaders. In the end of the day, it is up to them to secure public approval and get a cohort of followers and supporters behind them. Most social entrepreneurs aren’t equipped for that. They must be as solid as the team they are leading to run their business.”

Practice what you preach. When Leon Reiner and his team opened their new space for Impact Hub Berlin he made a simple yet surprising observation: “We are designing the Hub according to the needs of our members. After all, customer discovery and validation is what we challenge founders to do – why shouldn’t WE?” “We try to be as customer-oriented, as we require it from our founders.”, Bastian Mueller at Yunus Social Business chimed in, “As part of this, we survey them to figure out how relevant each program component is to them. We were surprised by some of the findings.” There we have it! Practice what you preach. Be critical. Solicit feedback.

Vincent de Coninck at Oksigen Lab in Belgium and Kristina Notz raised a similar point with regard to financial sustainability. Both argued that support organizations need to be financially sustainable if that is what we expect from our founders. This is probably one of the biggest questions I came across during this trip. Figuring out business models for support organizations is top of my research list, and I can’t give you an answer yet. What I have gathered so far is that the most promising models have diversified their income streams, work with corporate partners, manage to secure government contracts and have embedded themselves in an active angel investing community. This clearly is a starting point at best. I have accepted that to-date most support organizations rely on philanthropic funding. But let’s be honest here: in order to be credible role-models to the founders we work with, we need to become a lot more creative in generating revenue.

programs and funding long

And I am only just getting started… I would love to share more of the observations and insights I came across during those six months. But they don’t fit into a list of best practices or common learnings, they lie in the space between, are a piece within the bigger picture that we rarely pause to look at. And they differ from country to country. Instead, I invite you to explore the grey area, organizational trends and personal stories on right here on this website – be my guest!

I have come across some great resources for those of you looking for larger-scale data-driven insights into social enterprise support around the world. I recommend “From Seed to Impact” by the Global Social Entrepreneurship Network, Monitor Deloitte’s “Accelerating Impact” and ANDE’s “Bridging the Pioneer Gap”. These guys have done a phenomenal job in gathering and analyzing data that informs best practices in this “industry” of support organizations. They don’t focus on Europe, but they give a good introduction of the space.

Wrapping up.

If you are still reading at this point, I feel obliged to send you on your way with some recommendations based on what I learned. I outlined at the beginning how transient this research is, how out-of-date it will be the moment it’s published. Therefore, I have boiled it down to one single piece of advice: Act like a social entrepreneur.

  • Wrap your programs around the needs of your founders,
  • create a safe space for lean experimentation, failure and learning;
  • be a facilitator and support where and when support is needed.
  • Lead by example, no more and no less.

Plug founders into your local ecosystem and you will create more than a successful support program. You will grow a living, breathing community of socially-conscious founders and supporters.

Cartography: London

May 1, 2015

Cartography [n.]: Mapping, review

London was an incredible experience. I met with eight Social Venturers in only three days and spent another two days running across town and filming expert interviews for one of my clients. And I actually need to consult my notebook schedule to recall all the people, organizations, locations and contexts of these terrific encounters.

Why is the #UK ahead in driving #SocEnt? Click To Tweet

I ask all Social Venturers which countries they consider ahead in the field of social entrepreneurship, and most of them reply “the UK”. When I met with Stephen Miller, back then evaluation manager at Unltd, he had some explanation: “I think the UK is ahead for two reasons: Firstly, the government has been very committed to supporting social entrepreneurship and, secondly, we had some very strong actors who have pioneered research and programs the field such as Unltd and Nesta.” I buy that. And still I wonder how come that the UK government saw the potential in social entrepreneurship as early as in the nineties and early 2000’s while countries like Germany and France seem to have ignored it. Do the British have more pioneering spirit? The European Union has jumped on the bandwagon of social innovation (better late than never?!) and are investing in research and competitions on European level (BENISI, TRANSITION, European Social Innovation Competition to name just a few initiatives). yet I can’t shake the feeling that other national governments are waiting to see what happens – failing to understand that this is not the way innovation works.

Thames stroll

Thames stroll

I asked Paul Miller at Bethnal Green Ventures the same question and received a similar answer: “The Cabinet Office and Nesta have been very supportive in driving the social innovation space. The enthusiasm of the government to create a market for social investment has been a great driver for researching and trialing different social enterprise support mechanisms. At the same time, I believe that technology has made a difference: If social enterprises were only about brick and mortar, they would be very cost-intensive. Thanks to the growth and access to tech, however, prototyping social ventures has become a lot cheaper and faster. It opens more opportunities to develop a product or service, go to market, test, and refine or start again without the high up-front investment that is required without the use of technology.”

Thanks to technology prototyping social ventures has become a lot cheaper and faster. Click To Tweet

Richard Brownsdon at Impact Hub Westminster adds: “The social enterprise sector is growing both in terms of social enterprises and support organizations thanks to a shift in this generation’s work-life culture. In today’s purpose economy, younger generations work in dynamic ways; they want jobs with purpose and if they can’t find them, they will create them.”

IMG_20150129_072927

Calling it a night

I spent my third day in London at an event called Business for Good – Good for Business. I interviewed and filmed (social) entrepreneurs and business leaders who are striving for more ethical/sustainable/responsible business in the UK and Europe – broadly speaking. One of my interviewees spoke about the role of digital skills for social start-ups and similar to Richard and Paul, he explained to me what great opportunities the internet and related products and services  offer to this generation of emerging entrepreneurs. Being able to write code, or work with programmers, enables tech-related startups to develop  and test their business ideas at relatively low cost thanks to agile development. Social entrepreneurs, in particular, can benefit from this development through reaching their target markets and campaigning for their cause, spreading the word about their solution and activating supporters beyond a local level. I am not saying that this holds for all social entrepreneurs working in any field, but I have come to understand that we experience a wealth of knowledge and resources that was simply not available five or ten years ago; let alone the opportunities of gaining technical skills even through distance learning at low or no cost (Code Academy, DECODED, various MOOCs).

Nesta HQ

Nesta HQ

Another day of my London trip was devoted to meeting with professionals whom I met with simply to hear what they were working on and talk through some of the questions that had bubbled to the top over the past months. With Jessica Stacey I spoke about her experience in impact acceleration, and finding the balance between research and policy, and working in the field. Lily Bowles shared some insights into her time at Village Capital and why she had opted for a masters at London School of Economics. Madeleine Gabriel and Lou-Davina Stouffs at Nesta introduced me to TRANSITION and the Innovation Growth Lab – both aimed at exploring common and best practices in scaling (social) entrepreneurship and trialing support practices, respectively.

All in all, London was a great mix of meeting with Social Venturers who work in support programs, and meeting like-minded people with similar research interests. London is vibrant with social entrepreneurship support and related research, I have only just dipped a toe into the scene and look forward to coming back and meet more Social Venturers!

Spotlight: Alessandro Palmieri

Alessandro_long

What drives you?

I believe in the power of people and communities to change the world for better.

Biggest SocEnt trend you have seen in the last 5 years?

I have only been in London for under a year but I would say that we have a great number of support offers for social entrepreneurs here in London, more than anywhere else. Many corporates have started to give support to social enterprises through programmes and contests. They’ve increasingly recognized the benefits of reconnecting their people with their social purpose. However, there is a need for a safe space where corporates and social enterprises can come together to get to know each other better.

Currently reading

Leading from the emerging future, by Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer

Background

“Back in Italy, I worked at an agency for internationalization before joining a startup that helped users find the right roommate. After graduating from my masters in business management, I went to Australia to take some time off and figure out what I really wanted to do. In October 2014, I obtained a scholarship to start working at Benisi and I have since transitioned to being community manager here at Impact Hub King’s Cross.”

twitter@Aleturin

 

Impact Hub King’s Cross

On my last day in London in April I made my way to another impact Hub – this time in King’s Cross. Established in 2007, it is one of the first hour in the now 1,000-member-strong Impact Hub network in London alone.

I met with Alessandro Palmieri who used to work as BENISI coordinators before joining Impact Hub as community engagement manager. Having visited with Hub Westminster two days prior, I couldn’t help but compare. Impact Hub King’s Cross is a three-storey open space with a cafe on the ground level. Again, I had to be buzzed in and walked into a very quiet co-working space that urged me to whisper as I approached Alessandro. It was crazy busy and we had trouble finding a place to sit down. Finally, we settled for the stairs in front of their glass-wall meeting room.

Impact Hub King's Cross

Impact Hub King’s Cross

Since their Educckate program had already finished we started chatting about their Fellowship For Longer Lives  program whose objective is to “create innovative solutions to the challenges and opportunities presented by an ageing society.”1)http://kingscross.impacthub.net/program/impact-hub-fellowship/ Together with AXA and Swiss Re Foundation, Impact Hub launched the Fellowship to enable entrepreneurs with innovative solutions to address the challenges increased life expectancy and demographic ageing. The Impact Hub Fellowship for Longer Lives, implemented in four different cities (Oaxaca, Milan, Madrid and London), nominated up to three initiatives for each city and awarded one of them with a one year fellowship, gaining access to seed funding, focused skill development, valuable networks and a stimulating workspace at Impact Hub. Impact Hub King’s Cross launched the London stream of the Impact Hub Fellowship for Longer Lives in January 2014.  The first price went to Speakset, a service to help older people video call doctors, family and friends. Since their  initial idea (awarded in 2014) Speakset has

  • secured £345K investment;
  • hired six new team members (sales);
  • improved the quality of hardware and software;
  • managed to break even – a sustainable business in three months time.

BENISI and Impact Hub Scaling

Impact Hub King’s Cross is also involved in BENISI and as of April 22nd, 2015, is part of the Impact Hub Scaling initiative as part of which eight Impact Hubs across Europe support up to 100 social enterprises to scale their across Europe using the Impact Hub network.

BENISI is a trans-European consortium that aims at building a Europe-wide network of incubators for social innovation, meaning new ideas, products, services or models that simultaneously meet social needs and create new social relationships or collaborations. “Social innovations are not only important for the new specific solutions to societal needs, but they can furthermore impact society’s capacity to innovate.”, explains Alessandro. BENISI aims at identifying 300 of the most promising, impact-ful and employment-generating social innovations with high potential for scaling successfully. The program provides them with support services tapping into its network of competent partners throughout Europe. BENISI is led by i-propeller and implemented by six Impact Hubs in Europe: Amsterdam, Bucharest, London King’s Cross, Milan, Stockholm and Vienna. In collaboration with: DIESIS (European Research and Development Service for the Social Economy), EURADA (European Association of Development Agencies), Fondazione Cariplo, and PEFONDES (European Network of Foundations for the Social Economy).

Impact Hub King's Cross - second floor

Impact Hub King’s Cross – second floor

Impact Hub Scaling is a programme that supports 100 social entrepreneurs to scale-up locally or internationally through eight Impact Hubs across Europe. Within one year, the selected social enterprises will work closely together with Scaling Managers located in Amsterdam, Athens, Bucharest, London, Madrid, Milan, Stockholm and Vienna. These expert mentors provide them with knowledge, skills, access to investor networks and advice throughout the program.

More recently, Impact Hub King’s Cross and the Presencing Institute offer U.Lab. which is a massive open online course (MOOC) on EdX offered by MIT. The twist of signing up for U.Lab at one of the 45+ Impact Hubs around the world is becoming an Impact Hub Connect member and working through the course with the local Impact Hub community. If you have ever taken a MOOC, chances are you have felt a bit isolated and lonely in your learning experience. Check out their Facebook group to get a feel for how the program is coming along.

As a member at Impact Hub King’s Cross you can take advantage of two acceleration programs as part of Impact Lab. In Take Off, idea-stage entrepreneurs receive three months of support in developing their business model and working through operational details like accounting, legal structure, communications etc. The five-months Fly High program is geared towards entrepreneurs that have been running their business for up to three years and are looking to build their capacity in all matters scaling (adapting the business model, increasing scales, financial forecasting etc.).

twitter@impacthubkc

kingscrosss.impacthub.net

References   [ + ]

1. http://kingscross.impacthub.net/program/impact-hub-fellowship/

Spotlight: Richard Brownsdon

Richard_Brownsdon

What drives you?

Life. I am passionate about having an impact, teaching and sharing, exploring the world, living a healthy life.

Biggest SocEnt trend you have seen in the last 5 years?

The sector has grown a lot over the last year, in terms of both social entrepreneurs and support organizations. Also, I think the work-life-culture in the sector has shifted. The younger generations are increasingly working in dynamic ways, they want a job with purpose and if they can’t find that, they will start their own business.

Currently reading

  • Influence, by Cialdini
  • Value Proposition Design, by Osterwalder et al.
  • Civilization and its Discontents, by Freud

Background

Richard has worked in the social startup support sector for about five years, including with organizations like ClearlySo, Unltd, and Ashoka.

“Much of my work has focused on helping social entrepreneurs raise money. About three years ago, I went freelance and started testing out my own entrepreneurial ideas, while supporting other social startups too. My main client has certainly been Impact Hub Westminster, where I have been a long term contractor, helping them to develop and deliver social startup support for their ecosystem.”

Richard runs his own company Inspiring Adventures, and launched several projects through it, including social enterprise learning tours for which he won an award:“I love testing ideas of my own, whilst also working to help others with their businesses. I think it helps me understand the needs of the entrepreneur, from the inside out.”

When he’s not working at Impact Hub Westminster, he loves to explore social enterprises and responsible travel opportunities around the world.  This has included 3 months on a not-for-profit cruise ship called Peace Boat circumnavigating the world, to writing an ebook about his responsible travel in Brazil (to be published in November 2015).

Learn more about him here.  

twitter@Brownsdon

 

Spotlight: Jessica Stacey

Jess_Stacey

What drives you?

At Bethnal Green Ventures I  can add up all the parts of what I have done before. I am not following a clearly defined career path. To me, social values and doing something that is interesting and has a positive impact are my biggest drivers. I love being surrounded by people who have have a drive and ambition to make a difference in the world.

Biggest SocEnt trend you have seen in the last 5 years?

Advances in technology have resulted in new solutions to big social and environmental problems. We’re seeing a new breed of social entrepreneurs thinking about digital tools and services that tackle big problems at scale. These tools and services can be prototyped quickly and relatively cheaply, making it easier and quicker to get something off the ground and into the hands of people whose lives it will change.

Currently reading

Tech For Good Global blog posts and videos, and I’m making my way through the back catalogue of Radiolab podcasts

Background

Jess worked in PR and marketing for an investment firm before getting involved with Social Entrepreneurship through Matter&Co. In September 2012, she joined Nesta to spearhead their policy and research efforts in the field of acceleration. “Our report ‘Startup Factories’ looked at how accelerators work and how they spread around Europe. It was a big success. We wanted to build a research project that was directed towards practitioners, and entrepreneurship academics got interested. We started collecting data from different organizations for a longitudinal study. Along with Good Incubation, we published some other reports on accelerators (conventional and impact-focused). Working at Nesta was a great experience because I was able to work on what I was interested in. It was almost like university. When it was time for a change, I joined Bethnal Green Ventures.”

twitter@JessStacey

 

Spotlight: Paul Miller

Paul_Miller

What drives you?

I want to see really talented tech people working on stuff that matters.

Biggest SocEnt trend you have seen in the last 5 years?

For one, the Cabinet Office and Nesta have been very supportive. I feel there is lots of enthusiasm in the government to create a market for social investment in the UK. At the same time, technology has made a huge difference: prototyping social ventures has become cheaper and faster. If social entrepreneurship were only about brick and mortar, it would be very cost-intensive but going down the tech road makes it easier and opens more opportunities.

Currently reading

‘Holacracy: The Revolutionary Management System that Abolishes Hierarchy’ by Brian Robertson which outlines an alternative to more conventional ways to manage and structure organisations – we’re trying it out at BGV.

Background

“I used to work in a political think tank, but you could say that I got bored by trying to change things through writing. I realized that for the same price of writing a report, we could prototype a startup! So I went on to launch School of Everything for continuous adult learning. It was lonely and difficult to build a for-profit startup in adult education; definitely not a very glamorous topic at the time. Then came the 2008 crisis which derailed everything just as we needed the next round of investment. As part of that process, I realized that I could have done a lot better if I had had someone who had done this stuff before. You really don’t need much for your first venture, so we (me and Anna Maybank) designed Bethnal Green Ventures to help in that situation.”

twitter@Rellimluap

 

Impact Hub Westminster

I first visited Impact Hub Westminster during my London visit in January 2015. I had met Richard Brownsdon back then who was just about to fly off to work on his own venture – Inspiring Adventures – in a social enterprise retreat in Bali. I figured that interesting people work in interesting places. Back in January we had gotten around to a match of table tennis but not much more and I was keen to follow up with him on this second trip to London.

Impact Hub Westminster is located on a large floor on New Zealand House in Mayfair, close to Piccadilly Circus. You sign in with security, receive a visitor pass and already feel like you are about to witness something important. That day, 180 people (conservative estimate) were working away when I walked in. It was a busy environment that urged me to get going with the interview, too. Time is money.

Impact Hub Westminster was founded in 2011 and is one of the four Impact Hubs in London. I was surprised to find that both programs running at the time were free of charge for the entrepreneurs. Raise Impact is a crowdfunding program that coaches entrepreneurs through the process of setting up and running a crowdfunding campaign. It offers free classes in PR & marketing, creation & logistics, deal structuring and pitching.

copyright by Impact Hub Westminster

copyright by Impact Hub Westminster

Secondly, Richard and his team only just finished the Impact Investment Ready Program – a two-day course on assessing your investment readiness and approaching impact investors successfully. Both programs are funded by the European Union and therefore free to participants. For the first time it occurred to me that offering programs for free is great if you can afford it. At the same time it sets the tone within this sector that some support is for free while other programs may charge for a similar service. I stand by my view that support programs for social entrepreneurs represent a quality service that is worth investing in from the side of the social entrepreneur.

I ask Richard what he thinks makes a good support program. “Give entrepreneurs what they need, when they need it. During their startup phase, founder teams have so much else on their plates, they need to balance their priorities and any good program should be able to provide just in time learning.”

Since my visit in April, Impact Hub Westminster launched Impact Scholarship 2015 – a scholarship program for social entrepreneurs developing clean energy solutions. This is the start of the support that Impact Hub Westminster will be offering to cleantech companies in the coming months and years, with a new cleantech accelerator scheduled to start in 2016.

Impact Hub Westminster is a great example of a local and global community alike, and a co-working space built around it. If you are ever in London and need a co-working desk, make sure to stop by Impact Hub Westminster! With 12,000 square foot it’s huge and you are guaranteed to meet great people!

twitter@hubwestminster

westminster.impacthub.net

Bethnal Green Ventures

On a very sunny morning in London (never take these for granted in London!) I strolled into along the Thames to meet with Bethnal Green Ventures hosted at Makerversity within Somerset House. I had come across BGV quite a bit over the last years and was surprised they have only been operational since 2012 (the predecessor – Social Innovation Camps – started in 2008). Paul Miller picked me up personally and after a labyrinth tour of Somerset house (up the stairs, round the corner, down the stairs, repeat, reverse.), we found ourselves in the basement overlooking the Thames. BGV works alongside with their startup founders and Alumni all sharing a large space full of desks, prototypes of fashion items next to yellow robotic parts spread out in the communal area.

'You don’t need much for your 1st social venture, that's what we designed the program for.' Click To Tweet

Bethnal Green Ventures started out as a hack-weekend that was geared towards developing technical solutions to societal challenges, called social innovation camps. More and more professionals participated who started wondering how they could turn these weekend-gigs into their career. “You don’t need a lot of things for your first social venture, so we designed a program to help in this situation.” Paul and his team started out in 2011 with no money. “Over half the teams we worked with in the first round were able to successfully raise investment. Then Nesta got interested in working with us because they wanted to build a pipeline for their investment fund in 2012.” It went from there.

Bethnal Green Ventures space within Somerset House

Bethnal Green Ventures space within Somerset House

In July 2012, the Cabinet Office launched the Social Incubator Fund with the objective to support ten social incubators in the UK to “strengthen the growing social investment market by providing startups with intensive support to enable them to take advantage of social investment opportunities so they better serve communities and people most in need.”1)https://www.gov.uk/government/news/10-million-social-incubator-fund-launches The Social Incubator Fund (Cabinet Office), together with Nesta and Nominettrust backed Bethnal Green Ventures for four years, and BGV ran with it. They received £1.8m investment to invest up to 80 early stage technology startups tackling social and environmental problems over the next four years2)http://www.nominettrust.org.uk/news-events/news/accelerator-tech-based-social-ventures-receives-cabinet-office-backing.

'We invest in teams at the beginning rather than giving out prize-money at the end.' says Paul Click To Tweet

BGV was the first accelerator for social entrepreneurs that I had come across. They run an intense three-months program designed for tech-based startups that meet the criteria of

  1. solving an important problem through
  2. an ingenious approach working in
  3. a strong team.

Participants receive 15,000 pounds as a living stipend and business investment for the months within the program. Paul explains “We believe in investing in teams at the beginning as a sign of our trust and belief in their business rather than treating it as some kind of prize-money at the end.”

Along with all the expertise they receive during regular workshops, office hours with the BGV team, and pitch practice, being part of BGV also means free office space for six months, legal support, free web-hosting, and Founder Confidential – a Wednesday lunchtime event with invited speakers. That the program works show Alumni such GoodGym, Fairphone and DrDoctor.

Demo Day on 17 September, 2015

Demo Day on 17 September, 2015

I got the impression that the social mission was intrinsic to BGV’s ventures, yet not the label of their entrepreneurs who are first and foremost tech-savvy entrepreneurs. When I asked Paul about the unique features of BGV’s program I was surprised to hear him say:”The entrepreneurs we work with are very comfortable doing it for a social purpose.” It was here that I understood their distinctiveness not to the social but the tech startup world: “BGV entrepreneurs don’t have to hide their social purpose when developing an app or some tech-based service. They understand money as a means to an end compared to a straight-forward tech program.” Amen.

'We look for ventures that go through the roof. There is little room to worry about the risk.' Click To Tweet

Investment such as from the  Social Incubator Fund is a great starting point to design an impact accelerator model. Taking equity in return for the up-front investment is one promising approach to becoming financially sustainable as a support organization. But then, why don’t more support organizations do it? I assume equity is less attractive in ventures that do not primarily – or at all – pursue profits. I would imagine it to be a more attractive option for startups with better (economic) growth potential, such as in the tech industry. Paul adds “We can’t invest by trying to limit our downside risk, we have to look at the possibilities. We look for ventures with great potential to go through the roof. There is little room to worry about the risk.”

I personally am a great fan of Bethnal Green Ventures and I love seeing support organizations like them operating on a financially sound basis. The coming years will have to show whether this model will sustain itself and if it is replicable in countries with less government support.

twitter@bg_ventures

bethnalgreenventures.com

References   [ + ]

1. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/10-million-social-incubator-fund-launches
2. http://www.nominettrust.org.uk/news-events/news/accelerator-tech-based-social-ventures-receives-cabinet-office-backing

Field Study: UK

Field Study [n.]: Preliminary research

Since my initial field visits to the UK I have been able to update this post with the most recent study of social enterprise in the UK,  published on 15 September, 2015 by Social Enterprise UK. Supported by Santander, Social Enterprise UK surveyed 1,159 social enterprises via phone and online surveys. To date, this makes it the largest study of social enterprise in the UK. I ask every Social Venturer which countries they consider leaders in the field of supporting social entrepreneurs, and most of them respond with the UK. Let’s see what this is all about.

#SocEnt in the UK are outperforming their mainstream counterparts. Click To Tweet

The survey reports 70,000 social enterprises in the UK making up £25 billion of the UK economy providing nearly one million jobs. The study finds that social enterprise in the UK is thriving outperforming their mainstream counterparts (small and medium sized enterprises) in most business areas such as growth in turnover and workforce, job creation, innovation (how do you measure that? Serious question!), and diversity in leadership. In terms of new business formation, social enterprises score 35% compared to their commercial counterparts at 11%. 52% of social enterprises managed to increase their turnover over the last year while the conventional startup sector stands at 40%. A growing number of social enterprises (14%) have been able to enter into export or licensing, and if you are not convinced yet that social enterprise rules in the UK, let  this sink in: “With 31% of social enterprises working in the most deprived communities in the UK, the more deprived the area, the more likely you will be to find a social enterprise working there.” Doesn’t that just sound like the textbook idea of social entrepreneurship?

State of Social Enterprise Report 2015, p. 10 (link above)

State of Social Enterprise Report 2015, p. 10 (link above)

These are just some highlights from the report. An updated version of the report is published every six months so if you are interested in learning more about social enterprise trends in the UK, I highly recommend a thorough read!

In terms of actors in the social venture support landscape, it is worth mentioning Nesta and Unltd as well as the Global Social Entrepreneurship Network based within Unltd. I had an informal meeting with Nesta and had the chance to talk to Jessica Stacey who ran Nesta’s research on impact accelerators before joining Bethnal Green Ventures in 2015. Nesta has done some fantastic work in the field of startup acceleration; some of their research even focuses on impact accelerators. If you want to learn more, check out their report on Good Incubation and read up on their launch event with contributions from Banks Benitez at Unreasonable Institute and Victoria Fram at Village Capital (who you will learn more about here in the not-so-distant future). Unltd supports social entrepreneurs from idea- to growth-stage through various competitive awards programs. Initiated by Untld, the Global Social Entrepreneurship Network is a membership network for social venture support organizations from around the world. While the majority of their work takes place behind closed doors, I recommend their recently published report From Seed to Impact – Building the Foundations for a High-Impact Social Entrepreneurship Ecosystem.   

Insights from GSEN's first member report, p. 21 (link above)

Insights from GSEN’s first member report, p. 21 (link above)

I went to London for a freelance gig that had me interview and film conscious business leaders at an event at the Royal Bank of Scotland. I spent two days preparing and running the interviews and had only two days to meet with Social Venturers. By no means is this going to be a complete account of social venture support organizations in the UK; it is a start at best. With that said, I was thrilled to be line up meetings with some really inspiring Social Venturers in London. I even managed a trip up North to learn more about social entrepreneurship in Scotland. I am painfully aware of how many organizations I have not been able to visit yet, and I keep a keen eye on my travel itinerary to plan my next UK visit!

For now, enjoy some first highlights of the Social Venturers and support programs I have met and grilled with questions about social entrepreneurship!