On Tuesday I am going to be a judge at the Big Venture Challenge run by Unltd and the Big Lottery Fund where 41 entrepreneurs compete to be one of 25 selected for a chunky investment package.
As far as these types of competition go, I am impressed so far both by the calibre of the 41 and the way the whole thing is being run. It is professional, brings the right kind of people in as judges and avoids Dragons Den cliches, going instead for a constructive interview process.
The pack arrived last week and I was pretty dazzled by the diversity of stuff we're looking at. Alongside well-known social enterprises in the employment sector there are start-ups and early stage businesses doing everything from clothing for disabled people through to franchising opps for the unemployed.
Well done to Unltd and the Lottery for putting all of this together. It all reads like a compendium of the best emerging stuff in social enterprise right now in the UK, all overseen by judges who know one end of a good business from the other. The fact that the BLF is getting into social investment also deserves polite applause (they will get an ovation when they do it as a matter of course).
Any criticisms? Not really. Well, not massive ones. A few applicants look like they're just plugging financial holes, others looking for that one ;last big slug' of finance that we all probably know won't get them over the line to sustainability.
Others look at bit too fancy for my liking - lots of important sounding people on the board but not a single sale yet to point towards. I do have a bit of a thing about stuff that is web-based. Perhaps it's being from outside London, but some of the ones I see look like they might just work in Shoreditch but probably not in Shaw (that's a small town near Oldham, btw).
How will I approach the judging? Well, one thing to be sure I will be courteous. Anyone hauling their ass in front of a panel deserves to be given a proper hearing. No grandstanding or wannabe Peter Jones'.
Having done it myself before, I know it's bastard-difficult to get things across without some pillock trying to look good by tripping you up.
The only time I went in front of a bunch of smart-alec wan**rs left me with a longstanding distaste for their organisation (you can guess, I didn't get the backing!).
The other thing when looking at these things is to be aware that you can only ever know so much as a panel member. Even when the papers are great, the people and pitches clear, you're left with what is essentially a choice between two punts. I have often been as confounded by the success of certain things as I have by the failures of others I thought were complete bankers.
In truth, however smart, experienced or informed, nobody knows what's going to be a hit. Social investment will always be as much an art as a science.