Interconnected

All posts made in May. 2018:

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.