Friday, March 29, 2013

Will the social investment sector back the next Mark Zuckerberg?

Only the deluded would fail to  recognise that the public and social sectors have hit some sticky limits in moving the dial on the worlds most profound social problems. 

We can, course. take heart from the rise of brand new 'disruptive'  innovators such as Teach First which, over a decade, has achieved some system-change in the UK education sector. 

Also, thanks to the likes of NESTA, Unltd, the SSE and the Shaftesbury Partnership, we  see a lot of promising stuff riding over the hill..

But let's be honest here, this is still early in the day. The social sector in the UK is remarkably stable.  Barring the odd newcomer, the  names topping  the social sector bill today are much the same as 20 years ago.  Silicon Valley - or even Roundabout - this is not!    

Indeed the next Amazon of Facebook of the social sector is probably still working out of a bedroom somewhere.  Or, even more likely, the Mark Zuckerberg of the social sector is just coming to the end of a small social entrepreneur development award and wondering where it's next investment is coming from. 

  In fact he is dreading the panel he has to meet next month.  He is over-trading massively already (trying to show his model works) and he only has nights free to work on the five year P & L and cashflow being demanded by a po-faced group of former bank staff who are now running his social investment fund.  

In truth, he hasn't a clue about his P & L, or the scale-up potential of his model.  He just knows he has something which works and that he wants to devote his next five years to showing this to be true.   

The following week he actually meets the committee, they see his rather rough-cut plans, give him a hard time about the mistakes and send him packing on the grounds that this risks being good money after bad.  Everyone feels like they have done a good job and another sector changing idea quietly dies.  

 Our Mark Zuckerberg figure, now 30 and broke, is forced to get a job as a social enterprise investment adviser (there is always funding out there for those) and the world continues to turn.

The test of when the penny really has dropped in the UK social sector will be when we understand thst ideas that change the world need more than small development programmes, banking-inspired finance and highly conditional support.   

When, I wonder, will  we understand that very large bets need to be taken on people and teams, even when there is no real surity about where it's all going? 

In my view, we are a long time out from this.  Today's social innovator has to walk a fine line between telling a good story of revenue today and a ton of jam tomorrow.   If they can't do this, they don't get through the kind of assessment processes that are too hard too early (and indeed cost more to run than the amounts they invest).

My fear is that the emerging social investment market is going the way of the banking sector..  We hear that the large injections of capital coming out through various outlets under the Big Society programme are to be 'vanilla',  

This, I perhaps naively, take to mean straightforward, low-risk, semi-bankable.  Part of me is ok with that.  Easy to access, soft , unsecured finance is a very good thing indeed, especially in a capital-starved charity market which won't otherwise borrow.

  But I also wonder where the funding for the non-vanilla, the triple-choc-mint-and banana - really risky, dial-moving stuff is ever coming from?   Nobody seems to be into that space, except possibly for NESTA, at anything like the levels required to invest in big change.  

 Angel funding, which plays such a key role in the private sector, is still eluding most of the social finance houses. 

On a very micro-level, we at Stepping Out are trying to walk our talk.  Our Foundation (which recycles some of our profit) puts almost  all of its resource behind promising people and ideas at a stage where nobody really has a clue where it could all go. 

  If I ever have any serious money I hope I will continue to invest this way, before the business plan and all the suited, booted stuff about projections, revenue models and all of that. 

 There is a time for this, sure, but we often impose it way before an idea is really ready and, as a result, I suspect we not only miss a lot of good stuff but also tie long-burn innovators into short-term cycles that hold back their impact.

The test of our emerging social finance sector will be simple : will they back  the next Mark Zuckerberg?

Sent from my iPad


Mark Johnson said...

Great post Craig. Two observations. 1.I wonder why we don't tap into the power of local retail depositors more to raise community bonds for socially beneficial projects and services? I think local people would be be willing to part with a modest discretionary sum in return for a modest return. 2. Shouldn't the future innovators in the public services arena really be focusing on co-production of services which tackle intractable social problems - a good starting point would be managing long-term health conditions where sufferers may be better placed to peer-mentor than professionals? Just some thoughts to lob in. best.

Rob 'Arris said...

Not sure i agree entirely although I see your point. Social investment comes from where?.... Philanthropists, philanthropic consortiums, quango's, government, private sector? You tell me.

Not sure we've seen a Mark Z in this sector (and his 'idea' was pretty much challenged from day one legally) and if we did he got lost in the bureaucracy and caution of what you describe; this sector.

I also hold the view that the best ideas are new and innovative and need to be proven; never the best investment for anybody social or privately driven. It's up to the game changers to start small, develop and then have a proposal that sells itself to investors. Machine gun investment is gone and I believe that is the right way forward.

d3 cheap gold said...

I have the same point of view. Mark Zuckerberg idea.