Jim Woods is the CEO of The Crowd, an incubator of new digital products that help big companies tackle climate change and other important issues facing society.
We caught up with Jim to find out how the one-time investment banker become one of the key players in the corporate fight against climate change…
Jim’s journey started with an economics degree and a keen interest in challenging economics. “I did a mixture of straightforward economics and a lot of Karl Marx and Hegel at University” says Jim, “so I was very interested in the critique of capitalism.”
After graduating, Jim spent a year in Thailand teaching English in a small remote village before returning to England. He was offered an internship at the Singapore office of Barings Bank working with Nick Leeson, an opportunity that fell through when the Bank collapsed at Leeson’s hand. Jim did find an opportunity, working for a startup bank in New York, which was the beginning of a 7 year stint in banking for Jim, who ended up working in equity research. “[That] was really fascinating for me, to see how markets worked and the perception of value in the investor community” says Jim, “but I always knew that I wasn’t going to be a banker for the rest of my life.”
Starting up during the dot-com bubble
Jim moved back to London during the dot com boom. Having recently spent time covering internet stocks, Jim spotted an opportunity supplying startups that were raising millions of pounds at that time. “There was a lot of talk about how things would be delivered to your door in half an hour that had been bought on the internet. I thought, well how are they going to deliver these things, they’re going to need a special vehicle to do it.”
Jim raised some money and founded a company called ScooterSolutions which manufactured and sold branded motorcycles with enhanced storage. During the dot-com collapse, Jim’s customers began to go bust one by one and Scooter Solutions was left with one major customer, Domino’s Pizza. Jim sold ScooterSolutions in 2003 at a loss.
As an entrepreneur you have to accept the possibility of failure because you are ultimately dealing with quite substantial risk
“We saw this great disruptive area and thought you don’t want to be in it yourself but you want to supply the picks and the shovels for the gold rush” says Jim, ruminating on his time with ScooterSolutions. “What ultimately happened was that area of the gold rush that we were focussing on just completely evaporated. I think as an entrepreneur you have to accept the possibility of failure because you are ultimately dealing with quite substantial risk. If you are successful you’ll often be in a position to dominate a new market so you know that you’ve got the risk return profile… I think the constant itch in an entrepreneur’s mind is a) is your market going to take off as you think it will? and b) when it does are you going to lead it or are you actually paving the way for numbers 2 and 3? It’s a brave world, the world of the entrepreneur.”
During it’s brief success, ScooterSolutions had replaced the entire Yo! Sushi delivery fleet and Jim had gotten to know Yo! Sushi founder Simon Woodruff during that time. Simon offered Jim the CEO role of the Yo! Group as the company attempted to take the brand beyond restaurants. It was Jim’s responsibility to look at new ventures for Yo!, mainly focussing on the micro-hotel chain, Yotel.
The Revenge of Gaia
Awaiting the arrival of his first child, Jim stumbled across a book on his Father’s kitchen table called The Revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock. “Probably because it coincided with the birth of my child, it really resonated with me” says Jim. ”He [Lovelock] basically described how the earth’s current capacity would increase from 7 billion people to 10 billion people in 2050 and then, as the impact of climate change came in, it would fall to 2 billion people by 2100 and that was really describing the life of this new child I was bringing into the world.”
The book got Jim thinking. “The bit that I was wondering about was does this guy, as a preeminent climate scientist, does he really understand innovation? I set off on a journey thinking ‘can I use what I’ve learned in business in this space?’”
The more I looked at it, the more I felt that a lot of the solutions to sustainability already exist, they’re just lurking in different pockets of different organisations
In 2010, Jim joined The Crowd, which back then was called Green Mondays. “The original vision [for Green Mondays] was to create a sort of chamber where big companies could talk about climate change particularly, but other environmental issues” says Jim.
Ben Patten, founder of Green Mondays, came from an events background and set up the company as an events business. “I’ve got a slightly limited interest in events for themselves” says Jim, “but what I found fascinating about what Ben had created was this community of people that was coalescing around this monthly event. What particularly fascinated me was the knowledge that was held within this community. The more I looked at it, the more I felt that a lot of the solutions to sustainability already exist, they’re just lurking in different pockets of different organisations. What Ben created in this community was inherently valuable for all the knowledge that they held.”
Harnessing the power of the crowd
In 2012, Green Mondays was approached by Sainsbury’s, who wanted their sustainability program censor checked by the Green Mondays community. While they had nothing in place at that time, Jim and the team went away and created the Going Naked format. This involved laying out Sainsbury’s’ sustainability strategy, breaking it down into the 10 key pillars, and posting it online where it could invite its community to comment on each area. The Going Naked program culminated in a 77 page report that was made available to all contributors (and Sainsbury’s of course!) and an event where Justin King, Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s at the time, addressed the community. Sainsbury’s were thrilled with the result, as were the community who’d gained valuable insight into the processes of a peer.
It was evident that the Green Mondays community held a range of knowledge that could be incredibly helpful in the corporate battle against climate change. In 2013, Green Mondays changed its name to The Crowd and shifted its focus from events to developing products that would help them harness the power of their community’s knowledge.
In 2014, The Crowd ran a pilot where they invited their community to share information about some of the energy investments that they’d made. 53 companies joined the pilot and shared around 200 investments between them. Jim recalls one head of sustainability from one of the major car manufacturers had been able to use the data from the pilot to get the CFO to raise their energy investment budget threefold. “[This] told us there is a willingness to share and there could be something quite powerful coming out of this” says Jim. “At that point we felt we’d done enough experimentation to know that we may be able to play quite an important role in diffusing innovation faster.”
Overfunding on Crowdcube
Now they knew they wanted to build something, Jim and The Crowd team set about raising money on crowdfunding platform Crowdcube. “We’d always said we’d only raise money when we had something that we believed could be transformative” says Jim. “Events are what I call incremental change, they connect people, they inspire people, there’s a bit of knowledge sharing goes on, but they’re not game changers… they don’t change the fundamental rules within that space. We felt that both Going Naked and The Curve could be game changing, so we raised money on that basis.” The Crowd set out to raise £300,000 and came away with £450,000, with investors including members of their own community, FTSE 100 CFOs and people they’d never met before who came in through Crowdcube, one of whom has since joined the board.
Once they had the money they needed to start developing tools, Jim and the team had to decide whether they would hire their own tech team, or work with a tech company. “We were quite conscious that if we hired our own tech team we’d only be as good as our 1 or 2 people to start off with” says Jim, “whereas if we went to an established tech developer, then we could get a number of different skills within one house.”
It was a very strange way to start, by building an events program for what really is a tech business, but it actually in a funny way really makes sense
Simpleweb first started working with The Crowd in early 2015 to develop The Curve, the software platform born out of The Crowd’s energy investment data sharing pilot. The Curve allows large corporations to upload and share their energy investments and view those of others, starting with the data collected from the 53 companies who agreed to be part of the pilot.
“It’s all based on user generated content” says Jim. “There probably would only be one of these platforms and it would probably go global for the same reason that there’s only one Trip Adviser, there’s only one LinkedIn. You need all the data in one place for it to be really useful.”
I think a lot of yesterday’s wisdom is probably becoming less relevant today
While The Crowd is not your typical tech startup, they’re developing products in the same way that a tech startup, or even an incubator would. “We very much adhere to the whole lean startup philosophy” says Jim. “It’s all about coming in with a minimal viable product and testing it with our community. In a way we think of ourselves as a bit like a venture capital fund, developing solutions to solve an overall problem. The advantage we have is this trust and this community of people that will collaborate with us. It was a very strange way to start, by building an events program for what really is a tech business, but it actually in a funny way really makes sense. We built the community and then we started to develop the platforms. If we’d done it the other way around, I think it would have been virtually impossible to get these big companies to work with us on the experimentation.”
The Crowd is still very much still working on the same problem it was in the days of Green Mondays, but now, instead of running events to bring people together and share ideas, it’s creating digital platforms to do the same thing, on a much more efficient and global scale.
“I think a lot of yesterday’s wisdom is probably becoming less relevant today” says Jim. “Particularly in the digital era… think it’s much more about now investing as little as you can in something and then testing it in the marketplace and then seeing what people start to coalesce around and then building on that. It’s a much more collaborative era that we’re in, and using tech to collaborate is, I think, crucial to it.”
Don’t be the next Segway
When I asked Jim for his favourite piece of business advice, he reiterated his points about keeping development lean and agile. “Businesses used to be set up by teams of people who were highly secretive working on their business plan, talking to venture capitalists and then going ‘ta-dah’ here it is. I think the best example of that was the Segway – they were so secretive and they thought it was going to change human behaviour and Bill Gates came out and said ‘I can’t tell you what this is, but it’s going to be huge’. And then it did come out and everyone was like ‘what? That’s not very interesting’. I think that way of doing business in the digital era is becoming obsolete, I think it’s a lot more open now.
“We don’t really have any direct competitors but we’ve got a few businesses that are kind of in the same space and we sent them our business plan when we were raising money. We share everything that we’re doing because we learn so much from them when we do that. I think it’s really all about minimal viable products and collaboration, and seeing where opportunities lie and then investing more in those areas… and then raise money when you know you’ve got something that looks pretty promising.”
We’ll keep you up to date with the latest news from The Crowd here, but if you want to learn more visit thecrowd.me.
If you’d like to discuss your startup or project, get in touch with Simpleweb today.