VC? Not for me…

Today on the Reuters Digital Vision Program we had the opportunity to mock pitch to three Venture Capitalist (VC) firms from Silicon Valley. As my fellow Fellows honed their pitches and made final tweaks to their presentations, I was ‘absent with leave’. It’s not that I’m not grateful for the opportunity, it’s just that I don’t have a business model for what I do. I barely make enough money for myself, let alone give someone else a good return on theirs (or any return, come to that).

Instead, I’m in search of the pure social investor.

Who would this be? What would they ‘look’ like? Well, by definition, a pure social investor would see the value of kiwanja.net and realise that a solid sustainable business model, with a monetary return, is an unfair ask. They would instead want a strong social return based on a continuing service to non-profits and disenfranchised individuals and communities – grassroots organisations that need FrontlineSMS, or some crucial technical input into their project, or students and researchers wanting to understand the impact of technology in developing countries. kiwanja.net is all about bringing down barriers. Asking for money for many of these services would simply put up another.

There are many grand schemes out there, people trying to develop multi-million dollar solutions to hundred-thousand dollar problems. Subsidised or not, many seek a financial return for their investors. Schmoozing with politicians and large multinational donor organisations takes time – some projects take years to come to fruition, let alone begin to deliver, and then large percentages of the grants get siphoned off to cover a multitude of overheads. So, while people are busy working on their “big picture”, kiwanja will happily keep working on the smaller one, chipping away at the problems, and provide tools, inspiration and support for dedicated organisations and individuals out in the ‘real’ world. It’s not that this helps me sleep better at night. Quite simply, it’s where I see the greatest need.

And the greatest impact.

Static on the radio

I’ve been thinking more and more lately about how human behaviour divides neatly into good and bad, positive and negative, constructive and destructive, helpful and unhelpful, kind or evil, and so on. But however you describe it, for every positive there is a negative. For every person fighting for something, there are people fighting against it. These struggles have existed since the dawn of human-kind, and are still very much alive today.

The problem is that things are rarely black and white. What is good for one person can turn out bad for another, so it all depends on your perspective – which side of the fence you’re on, in other words. If you’re in the ‘fine by me’ camp it’s easy to forget people in the other ‘not so good for me’ camp. When people voluntarily reach across this ‘void’ we call this charity, and the reaching hand usually does so with a fistful of hard-earned dollar bills. This might solve the problem, but then again it might not.

When people give to good causes they assume their money will be used wisely and that it will tackle the problem in the best possible, most efficient way. But for every few dollars given to solve the problem, infinitely more goes towards keeping things as they are. Maintaining the status quo is big business. Indeed, big business, governments and lobby groups are all guilty to some degree. Their job is to keep things good for their ‘fine by me’ constituents, and what happens on the other side of the fence doesn’t concern them. With this going on, are people effectively pouring their money down the drain?

Take international trade as an example. The global system is heavily weighted against the smallest, poorest and most disadvantaged nations. At World Trade Organisation (WTO) gatherings, developing nations with their four or five delegates are regularly overwhelmed by the several hundreds sent by the European Union and United States. It’s not surprising they find it hard to get their voices heard.

Meanwhile, the man and woman on the street are giving their few dollars to ‘help’ tackle world poverty, wearing their white wristbands or whatever. This might be the easiest and most convenient thing to do, but is it the most effective? Is it really doing any good? The real problem might not be poverty, but the world trade system which perpetuates it.

Fact: A one percent increase in world trade would generate an extra $70 billion in Africa, five times more than it currently receives in aid

Isn’t it time we re-thought the problem?

Who’s afraid of Google?

I was passing through WHSmith at Heathrow airport yesterday on my way back to San Francisco when the latest BusinessWeek magazine caught my eye. The cover story addresses fears that Google may be getting a little too big for its boots.

The timing was quite neat. Only a couple of days ago I blogged about a possible IT future dominated by Google’s technology (see below), and drew comparisons with IBM. The BusinessWeek article does the same. However, it talks of Google “building out of tens of thousands of server computers around the world that handle quadrillions of bytes of data”, which goes slightly over my tongue-in-cheek suggestion that everything could be done with five (although, to be fair, I didn’t say how big they had to be!)