"We want to be the best ‘tech for good’ investor in the world"

27th March, 2014 by Anna Simpson

Paul Miller of Bethnal Green Ventures describes his journey from Forum Masters student to start-up accelerator.

Paul Miller

Currently: Partner at Bethnal Green Ventures

Class of: 1999-2000

People who have inspired me: Tim O’Reilly for urging techies to work on stuff that matters

Organisations I most admire: Y Combinator for creating an amazing alumni network

Why did you choose the Forum Masters?

I did physics at university but spent most of my time as an activist working on the Jubilee 2000 debt cancellation campaign. I came to see that, while campaigning is all well and good, change is dependent on policy. I felt I needed to learn how policies are developed and written, and that’s what I was looking for in the Forum masters. I did placements with Surrey County Council, the European Commission and HM Revenue and Customs.

What did you learn from it?

I realised that the way policies develop is as much down to organisational culture as it is to logic. Think tanks play a big part in their evolution, but in a more indirect way than I’d expected. They help to establish the context for more radical decisions to be made. I learnt not to underestimate how important this is.

How did you get into social enterprise?

I started working as a researcher for Forum for the Future and then Demos but found myself attracted to techy start-ups like Google. After a while I realised it cost about the same to create a start-up as it did to write a pamphlet, and the costs were coming down. I wanted to start something that had a social impact, and started thinking, ‘Why isn’t there an eBay for education?’ – something to match people who want to teach with people who want to learn. With a group of friends, we set up School of Everything. It started out well: we won a competition for new start-ups and got some publicity and initial funding off the back of that. But we never made any money. We tried lots of different business models but none of them would work.

Where did the idea for Bethnal Green Ventures come from?

Through School of Everything I learnt that starting a new business is really hard work, and rather lonely – and also that you need to test the business model before you invest in it. We went on to set up something called Social Innovation Camp, bringing people with ideas together. It was just at the time the terms ‘hackday’ or ‘barcamp’ were emerging. We started to build this great community, and we knew there was a world of social investment that might be interested in them, but there was no bridge between the two. That’s the aim of Bethnal Green Ventures, which has helped the likes of Good Gym, Mastodon C and Fairphone to get going.

How does it work?

Instead of picking a winner and investing £150,000, we choose ten potential startups to come along, invest £15,000 in each, and get them to work together and support each other – and then see which succeed. I like that idea that people start something together and then see it through together. At its most basic level, it means they’ve got something to talk about in the pub, but they also have a shared experience of learning something, and they teach each other on top of what they are taught.

What are your plans for the future?

My personal aspirations map onto BGV. We want to be the best ‘tech for good’ investor in the world. At the moment, we just do the really early bit, but over time we hope to invest further down the line.

Do you have any advice for start-ups or investors?

For start-ups: just try it. Work out what’s the least you could do to test your idea. If that works, then find some people to help you. For investors: take a risk.

Tomorrow’s leaders

Forum’s MA in Leadership for Sustainable Development is a fast-track, intensive experience, split between seminars, project work and 6 months of practical work placements. The course immerses students in sustainability in a variety of contexts, and opens their eyes to the breadth of possible careers where they can effect change. www.forumforthefuture.org/masters

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