Talk at Edinburgh University on the 27th of January 2014
Ben Byford: So just to kick us off, I don’t know anything about any of you guys, so how many of you run businesses right now?
Audience: [show of hands]
How many of you wish to in the future?
Audience: [show of hands]
BB: More of you.
And how many of you are likely to be employees in the future?
I would suggest everyone at some point, because you learn from other people’s mistakes!
So I am Ben. I’m a web designer, I worked for Virgin Head Office, I’m currently working on my own start up.
I’m going to talk about me, I’m going to talk about Virgin, and I’m going to talk about Eulergy, which is my start up. I’m going to talk about some interesting stuff, hopefully, and the whole point of my talk is to put into your minds that there is a practicality behind everything that’s said tonight. All the other speakers have been inspirational, but it doesn’t really get your businesses done, and it’s not the practicality behind making your business social or making it conscious.
“Every business should be a social business”, and that’s something you should all know by now. Whether you’re starting a new business and it’s a social enterprise, or whether you’re hoping to make loads of money on the stock market, whatever it is, you should know that your business is in the world and therefore you impact people, the planet, economic industries and all sorts of things.
So I did Music Tech [at university], which was great, but then I decided I didn’t want to do that as a job. I then went through a University start-up competition and I had some mentoring. That didn’t really go anywhere because I was doing something akin to Spotify and then Spotify turned up!
I then went on to go to Goldsmiths and do this Cultural Entrepreneurship, which was awesome because it was a year of reading and also thinking about your own ideas, and being with lots of other people thinking about their own ideas.
I’m currently freelancing after spending 3 years in Virgin. And Virgin’s weird because it’s a massive corporate body, but actually the Head Office is about 100 people and we oversee this amorphous things, and there’s loads of lawyers and accountants, and then there’s the social media team and designers – and that’s me. So I get to see all that kind of stuff.
So Virgin is massive, and like I say, it’s got lots of companies and it kind of works like a franchise as a lot of the companies they don’t necessarily have a stake in. Some of them they only may pay a licence fee, and some of them they own outright. It’s like lots of companies really, with the same name.
They changed their values recently and Erica brought this up earlier with her reference to the B Team and Richard Branson and this sort of stuff…So recently they’ve changed their values and they weren’t too far estranged from this. They’ve gone “right everyone, it’s not just Head Office that needs to know this stuff, it’s everyone that needs to know this stuff”.
And this is broadly what it is – there’s some other bits and bobs – but it is; “Business as a Force for Good”. And that is a lovely fluffy notion.
So I was talking to some of my old co-workers about doing this talk and mentioned that I was going to talk a little bit about what they do in Virgin because I thought it was interesting in respect to what I’m doing... So they’ve got all these old companies, which are stuck in their own ways, and they’ve got lots of new companies, which are much easier to deal with because they’re new entities.
Does anyone know what CSR means?
Audience: Corporate Social Responsibility
BB: Yes. Corporate Social Responsibility. And CSR is great. I think I’ve got a slide later on that says “CSR is so 2010”. It’s so over CSR now, because people should be incorporating CSR thinking from the ground level up.
Another [example of a CSR project] is balloon flights. I think this is brilliant. They [Virgin] went “we need to look at the wildlife and stuff, and if that’s not there then we don’t have a business anymore!”
So they’ve put money and effort into getting people interested when they’re in the [Virgin] balloons about what’s going on in the development below them. They might see there’s going to be a dual carriageway built down there and people don’t think it should happen because there’s a massive field. So, telling people about all the damage different things are going to cause to the lovely environment and countryside.
So those are some of the old businesses that you can do. Some of the new businesses – and this is kind of a cop out on my part because these are social enterprises anyway – so one’s the Earth Challenge. It’s a massive, massive fund to fund mainly scientific research in environment and solar stuff and carbon capture.
And Carbon War Room is a similar thing, where it’s about incubating amazing ideas, which then they actually do take to market So on the side of your fridge you have “A+”, or on different gadgets you might have “this is environmentally friendly” and it gets a B score or an A score. Well they’ve done this for shipping on massive freight containers, and they all get scored on how terrible and old they are, or how great and efficient they are. Which is hugely impactful because all our stuff comes from China and has to get shipped.
This is me [Eulergy].
Eulergy is about connecting research in universities with companies, charities and other institutions. We believe that – I don’t know if you’ve heard about MOOCs and online learning? – there’s a lot of big business going into online learning and that’s really interesting for undergraduates and college and school years, but what happens when you learn stuff and you want to make stuff? And that’s what I believe a lot of Masters and PhD [students] are doing; all this research and not really getting the networks or funding or support.
So even if you’re an undergraduate and you want to do an internship, you could go on there and post a project. And it’s all about specificity. You may or may not be doing something very specific to someone in America, or a business in Zimbabwe. So you could, through the website, find partners with companies or charities who are specifically looking for you. And that’s the general idea.
So it’s not a competition. You have some research you are doing, which you think is of value, and you may need x, y and z – funding, support, a commercial partner, someone who’s going to bring it to market, someone who is interested in putting it to the real world – and it’s like a dating website; you post it on there and it matches you with someone else. And it’s free, so check it out!
So we have some values, but as I say we’re roughing this up right now. I’m interested in the creative economy and information economy. So much of our money in the UK comes from arts and information and education export. So I’m interested in disseminating some of that information away from the institutions, because a lot of that stuff just sits in libraries. I know that my Masters did. And also I like academia and want to support it!
So it’s kind of a cop out because I feel that my company is in that second realm already because it’s new and it’s socially focused already, so I don’t have a massive headache to steer it in that direction. But as I will hopefully lead you to discover, having a social aim is just what you’re doing, it’s not necessarily how you’re running.
So, “every business should be a social business”.
And again “CSR”. This is what’s bad about CSR; “a business monitors and ensures its active compliance with the spirit of the law, ethical standards, and international norms” [Wikipedia].
This is everything I hate about CSR. You’re basically looking over your shoulder at the next company and going; “What are they doing? We’d better do that”. And you’re not thinking about actually doing something new, or clever, or actually improving yourself. You’re just keeping norm with everyone else. So you’re never outdoing yourself. Why have an amazing employee scheme, just have the normal. So that’s bad.
There’s a lot of this going round at the moment, there’s a lot of talks on TED, that say you should be thinking about “People, Planet, and Profit” specifically in this order. We all focus on profit already, everyone does. We don’t need to have profit at the beginning of this. So you should be focussing on People, Planet and if you’re in business you’re making money. That’s how I think about it: if you’re not making money, you’re not in business.
How does the Government think about this? If you go to the lovely new gov.uk website it’s really good, so plain and simple. If you set up a social enterprise, the top one for social enterprise is Limited Company. You could be a charity, you could be a co-operative, you could be a Community Interest Company, but don’t bother! Be a Limited Company, because what you can do with a Limited Company is anything. You don’t have anyone else to adhere to but your own conscience.
Practically – that’s the Google can phrase “do no evil” [slide] – what can you actually do as a Limited Company, or as a company that could do anything and could be evil?
What you need to do is bake the non-evilness into the company. You have these fabulous things, which are really oblique, when you start a company called Articles of Incorporation and they basically tell the world how your company operates. If you tell the world that you operate in a nice fashion and you believe in sustainable practice and paying your employees well, and you bake it into your company Articles, you basically go to prison if you don’t do it because it’s legal. You’re legally bound by your own ridiculousness in this document. I had an argument with my Company Secretary recently because you can really put anything in there. If I had 3 founders and we all disagreed on something we could just play roulette for whoever would win out. So you can do all sorts of weird stuff, but you should come up with something sensible. Don’t be put off by the language. You figure out what you want to do, you get someone to formulate it into language that is legally binding, and then you incorporate your company.
You should also reflect this in your ethos and language. If you’re not talking about it and you’re not talking about it internally and externally, then it’s probably not happening. And it’s also a competitive advantage. If you’re talking to your customers and they know that you are extremely nice to your employees, and your employees are happy to talk to their friends about how amazing the company is, then you’re already winning. That’s one thing Virgin concentrated quite a lot on; having happy employees.
And everything outside of you. so procurement contracts is a good one. How can you touch other people with your company and make them do nice things as well?
So some random stuff now:
Transparency and open salaries: this is all about having a formula for your employees’ salary so everyone knows exactly what they’re getting and how they’re getting it. Having that openness means you don’t have that water cooler moment [when people talk about how much they earn], because everyone knows.
Email transparency: Stripe is a competitor of Paypal. Every email they send internally gets put on a list that everyone then has access to look at, which might seem like a ridiculous idea, but it means that you can’t swear at each other and things like that. Or if you do, someone’s going to see that.
Open Company: this comes back to something we’ve heard earlier on from Erica. Transparency, openness; there’s a company [www.opencompany.biz] that are trying to promote openness. So these are practical things you can do. And also…
Open Source / Open Data: things that you make; try and make them available to other people because it’s hugely beneficial. We wouldn’t have the internet right now if people didn’t do that.
So that, I think, is everything.