Guest blog on “Academic collaboration – a startup point of view”

I was asked to write a guest blog to University College London Centre for Behaviour Change‘s Digi-Hub. My brief was to talk about collaboration between businesses and academia, in particular from the point of view of a small startup company like Club Soda.

My post, which is part of a longer series of guest blogs, deals with evidence, evaluation, and the tension that working across organisational boundaries can create.

You can read the post here.

Breaking into the NHS

No, not burglary. Digital Catapult had a half-day event on “NHS: The Procurement Minefield” last Monday. The first speaker was Mahiben Maruthappu from NHS England, who listed six big challenges for the NHS, or things that are needed more of: prevention, innovation, self-care, breaking silos and scaling, IT interoperability, and making the financial case. (Most of these sound like they would fit any major organisation really…)

He then listed three focus areas: organisational change to handle new kinds of services and local innovations (no surprise there!), combining innovations to achieve synergies, and achieving national scale. In terms of medical issues, diabetes, cancer and mental health are the three big priorities for the next ten years.

The other speakers weren’t as interesting to my ears, but the panel discussion towards the end had some good nuggets. For example, in answer to a question about how best to get into the NHS as a new service provider, the answers included having inside knowledge, “talking clinical” (i.e. not just business and tech), having a global view, and being adaptable and having perseverance (expect that anything will take years…). Someone even called the NHS “the hardest market to crack”, and recommended going direct to consumers, even if you then have to go to the US and Australia.

Some food for thought there, though mostly confirming the impression I’ve already got from other health and medical startups about the difficulties involved in working (or trying to work, to be more precise?) with the UK national health care system.


Forgot to mention this earlier, but the Club Soda team (Laura, Cassie, me) wrote a little e-Book: “How to go dry this January (and make it stick)”. It is based on some free booklets we wrote and gave away to Club Soda members during (dry) January, with some extra material thrown in. The only drawback is that the book is only available for Kindle from Amazon at the moment. But we’re working on an expanded book which we’ll share more widely.

In other news, I’ve also been writing an eight-week email-based behaviour change course for people wanting to cut down or quit drinking: 8 Weeks to Change Your Drinking. The first customers are on day 23 now, and I’m looking forward to the first proper feedback from them next week.

From fan clubs to supporting refugees

The November Building Online Communities MeetUp guest speaker was Shelley Taylor, who has been doing exciting things in tech for 20 years. In her own words an earlier venture of hers, a digital entertainment platform, was “both a huge success but also a failure” (the success part was 300,000 users). Very Silicon Valley!

A few years ago Shelley started thinking about old-fashioned fan clubs, which have of course been around for ages. Originally using magazines and letters in the post to communicate, it would be easy to think that Facebook and Twitter had completely destroyed the idea of fan clubs. But as is becoming more and more obvious, social media has fallen prey to its own success: artists, record labels, athletes, brands, can’t actually reach their audience on social media any more. This is largely due to the changing business models of the platforms – they rely on advertising for their revenue, so anyone wanting to reach people on them will now have to pay for the privilege (you can read articles with titles such as “What I learned spending $2 Million on Facebook Ads”). In plain terms, the Facebook algorithm will not show your update on your followers’ feed for free. And there are other pitfalls too. There are in the region of 60 Rihanna apps available. Sadly, they all fall under the umbrella of “unauthorized” – the artist has nothing to do with them.


So it might not be an exaggeration to conclude that social media marketing is mostly a waste of time and money. What is needed instead is direct contact and communication with your audience. Face to face, phone, email, can still reach people. Apps may also work better (if you get people to download them first!), as push notifications do get noticed. More old-fashioned, and more hard work, but probably also deeper and better quality communication as well?

This is where Shelley’s Digital Fan Clubs idea comes in. An artist can set up their own branded app, provide content through it, and actually reach their fans who can download the app for free. And it’s not just pop stars that can use the template. Anyone who needs to communicate with specific groups of people can use the same idea. And other organisations have seen the potential benefits, especially those with local information to share (such as a student housing provider).

intro_screenAn interesting and timely application of the idea is Shelley’s prototype refugee support app. Any organisation providing help and support for refugees can app information about their services to the app database, and refugees can then easily find local sources of support, whether legal support or information, food, shelter, or medical help (see image). By the way, it sounded like the biggest issue with this app was collating the data from all the aid agencies into a usable format. That does not surprise me at all…


Building more online communities

The second Building Online Communities meetup happened on Tuesday at the new Google TechHub in Shoreditch. The theme this time was “What we can learn from peer to peer support online”, and the speaker was Jamie from TalkLife.

TalkLife is a peer-to-peer support network, for talking about personal problems and mental health, via an app or on the web. Jamie talked about how he came up with the idea and how it has developed in the last three or so years. It’s safe to say that there have been ups and downs… This type of community obviously has some very special issues to deal with, as it involves mental health and young people, but it sounds like TalkLife have managed to create as safe a space as reasonably  possible, with an amazing active group of people keeping it that way. And in fact we talked about the possibility of having so much safety and security that the community just doesn’t function any more.

One of the most interesting points for me was TalkLife’s algorithm for quietly pushing posts up if nobody has responded to them. The aim is to make sure that everybody in the community gets their voice heard, and to keep engagement up. And that what happens in the first 15 minutes after joining TalkLife is the key factor in retention. Jamie also made some good points about their metrics: what is really important for them might not sound that exciting for others (e.g. potential investors), but absolutely make sense for their particular business and community. And their “vanity metrics” such as user numbers are very impressive too!

And if you didn’t write them down (or weren’t at the meetup!), these are the books that were recommended by Jamie and others:

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz

Onward and Upward: Reflections of a Joyful Life by Michael Wiese

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal

The Facebook Effect: The Real Inside Story of Mark Zuckerberg and the World’s Fastest Growing Company by David Kirkpatrick

Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is shaping our Future by Ashlee Vance

Building online communities

The first Building Online Communities meetup was at Google Campus last week. To fully disclose, I helped a little in organising it. But it was a good one, even if I say so myself.

Helen talked first about the development of, which is a great platform for creating online communities. The most interesting point for me was the difficulties they’ve come across. For example, privacy and anonymity are often valuable features, but they can also work against building and expanding communities. Which makes Facebook’s insistence on using real names more understandable from one point of view (though not from many others). This is something that we’ve found with Club Soda too: talking about alcohol and drinking is still somewhat taboo, which means that many of the usual ways of doing things online may not be feasible. And the spread of something like this online is therefore not very viral at all.

The value of leaders in keeping the discussion going is also worth thinking about. At least one, or perhaps a few very active people are needed to avoid the saddest sight of all: an online forum with the most recent post from six months ago.

On the positive side, people are still looking for new ways of connecting with each other, especially if they already have something in common. And geography might be making a comeback: the whole world may be connected, but we are still most connected in many ways to the people in our local neighbourhoods.

The rest of the meetup was spent on discussing any problems or issues the attendees are experiencing. This was really interesting and useful as well – we talked about the pros and cons of various tech platforms, and the role of content in getting and maintaining attention.

So all in all a very good evening. And there will be more of these meetups, probably monthly.

Learning by standing on a street corner

I’ve been volunteering for Amnesty International for ten years now. There have been many public actions in those years, and memorable moments from dressing up in a policeman’s helmet and pink feather boa to holding up a cardboard car on Brick Lane (hint: think Saudi Arabia and women drivers for the last one). It has also taught me a lot. I’ll share some of those learnings here, and I hope it’s easy to see their relevance to business and tech as well.

Starting from the basics: where to set up your stall? Obviously you want to be where people are. But you also need to have enough space for those people to stop at your stall. And ideally, to see you from a few steps away, so that you don’t take them completely by surprise. Their first reaction will most likely to be to walk briskly away if you do.

And you will need to have a great, quick sales pitch. On the street, you only get about three seconds to grab somebody’s attention before they’ve walked past you. So you’d better be prepared with something that will make them interested enough to stop and hear more. It also makes sense to try out a few things and see what works. Same thing with props and other gimmicks: some times and places waving handcuffs will work, and sometimes it won’t.

You will also need to know your stuff. Almost certainly you will come across someone who is either an expert in what you’re talking about, or someone who will, often very aggressively, try to argue that you are totally wrong, as well as an idiot or worse. So be prepared: read through your materials and petitions. And be honest and say so if you don’t know something.

Teamwork. Make sure you are all consistent, because life is confusing enough without you adding to it by giving away mixed messages. And agree your roles. There’s no point in all of you directing people to your stall if there’s nobody there to talk to them and get their signatures/money/whatever you’re asking for. And make it as quick and easy as possible to complete the transaction. It’s only polite not to make people hang around waiting while you try to find the right petition to sign.

So, how much of this is easily translated to thinking about UX, A/B testing, customer journeys, and all that jazz? Different frameworks and different vocabulary perhaps, but the issues are exactly the same. And most of this is common sense really: how do you make it easy for people to do what you’d quite like them to do, with the minimum fuss for all involved?

A start-up day job

I’m currently working more or less full-time for an exciting start-up company called Club Soda. The business aims to help people to change their drinking (of alcohol), whether they want to cut down, stop for a bit, or quit. Our v1 website went live just a couple of weeks ago, so it is all still very early stages, but there are some interesting behaviour change tools and techniques already on the site, with more to come over time.

My job title as “Behavioural economist” is a bit misleading in some ways, as I do a lot more than just behavioural stuff at the moment. But we have exciting plans to get more into developing and evaluating various methods of helping people change their drinking behaviours. I will keep sharing more of this here as well as it happens.