Social Impact: what’s all the fuss about?

Since I joined MAZE, I have learned quite a bit on the meaning of impact. The most important thing is that impact, whether social or environmental, is the greatest social economic opportunity of our time. Once you get it, you cannot forget it. Here’s how I see it:

What is social impact?

Social impact is per definition “the measure of an action’s benefit or harm to society and the planet” (Cohen, 2018, p. 3). That means it is a neutral term and impact can be positive and negative. However, in the impact ecosystem, we shift our attention towards decreasing negative impact and increasing positive impact. In the following, I will therefore relate to social impact as addressing a pressing societal or environmental issue by actions of an individual, a company or any other institution such as the government.

How did social impact come to be?

Social impact is in fact nothing new. Already in the late 1960s, social sciences dedicated efforts to assessing impacts of large industrial, land-use, and environmental changes. In 1992, the Union of Concerned Scientists and more than 1,700 independent scientists, including the majority of living Nobel laureates in the sciences, signed and sealed the first “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity”. These concerned professionals called for action. Humankind must prevent environmental destruction, they warned. In the 2000s, this warning has been reinforced by 15,364 scientists from 184 countries: 

“We are fast approaching some limits of what the biosphere can tolerate without substantial and irreversible harm.” – Ripple, et al., (2017, p. 1026).

Further events in the 2000s accelerated the topic of sustainability and social impact:

  1. Michael Porter and Mark R. Kramer’s ‘Shared Value’ approach published in 2006.
  2. The financial crisis of 2008 and steadily growing interest by society in businesses that do not only produce shareholder returns but also positive social and environmental impact to all stakeholders.
  3. The finalization of the 17 United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement in 2015 as an answer to planetary boundaries such as climate change.

What is social impact theory and how to approach it?

There are several theories and approaches to social impact and more are expected to emerge. I will focus on Social-ecological Systems Theory since it is aligned with MAZE’s understanding of social and environmental impact. This theory holds that there is an ever-closing cycle between nature and society. Therefore, everything we humans do affects the environment and translates back to society in some way or the other – and vice-versa. Hence, all environmental problems are also social problems. The adapted illustration by Sardá & Pogutz (2019) illustrates this relationship:

Adapted Social-ecologial Systems Approach (original by Sardá & Pogutz (2019))
Adapted Social-ecological Systems Approach (original by Sardá & Pogutz (2019))

If you are interested in system analysis and want to learn more on the relationship between society and nature and why it makes sense to pay for what the natural ecosystem does for us humans, I recommend you read this article on Payments for Ecosystem Services by my colleague Afonso Fontoura.

Just like social impact theories, there are various ways to approach social impact. I will focus on one of the most popular to date.

Theory of change is a framework that helps social entrepreneurs clarify the social impact they want to achieve and how to get there. The table below from Rank & File gives you a good overview:

social impact theory of change
Theory of Change Framework by Rank & File
Theory of Change Framework by Rank & File

What is social impact in practice?

In the impact community, we believe that impact is not binary but it exists in a spectrum that goes from pure philanthropy to market-based solutions. Both sides of the spectrum are valid and relevant depending on the social and environmental challenge being addressed. To get a better sense of the spectrum visually, you’ll find an overview by the European Venture Philanthropy below:

Social Impact EVPA
The EVPA Spectrum © european venture philanthropy association

On the right side of the spectrum, we have Impact-Only solutions where the primary drive is to create societal value. Our founder and guiding light, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, encapsulates this category as a relevant part of its endowment is allocated to grantmaking to support culture, science and arts.

The middle of the spectrum – Impact First – is where MAZE focuses its efforts. It is focused on businesses where the solution for an environmental or social problem is at the core of the value proposition. Consequently, they are a vehicle for positive change while generating a profit to ensure its financial sustainability. MAZE work is centred around three verticals:

  1. Startup Acceleration: we accelerate the businesses of the future through with Maze X, a 4-month programme targeting impact tech-enabled solutions.
  2. Startup Investment: we invest in talented teams that are using technology to solve for social and environmental challenges through our venture capital fund.
  3. Government Performance: we collaborate with the public sector to drive innovation in social services through outcomes-based commissioning and service design.

As you can see, MAZE is an intermediary. This means that we enable the growth and scale of impact-first solutions such as the following two:

imagiLabs coding app and coding device called imagiCharm © imagiLabs

imagiLabs was one of the startups in the 2020 cohort of Maze X. This social impact startup empowers girls (9-15 years old) to code and create with technology. With an app and a wearable programmable device, visualizations such as hearts or flowers can be coded and worn. imagiLabs is tackling the root cause of the gender gap in the field of STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) while making a profit. imagiLabs is what we usually refer to as a lock-step model, where the capacity to generate an additional €uro positively reinforces the capacity to solve a social or environmental problem.

Projeto Família, a support programme that exists to reduce the number of children and youth at risk that enters the care system, materialises the left side of the impact-first spectrum presented above. Projeto Família fits into our third vertical, specifically for outcomes-based commissioning through Social Impact Bonds.

Finally, as you can see the right side of EVPA’s spectrum refers to finance first models where the primary driver is to create financial value. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) fits into this category as it is a reactive approach to the impact that entails positive social actions secondary to a company’s main business strategy.

How to measure and report social impact?

The last years have seen a shift in the conversation from impact measurement to impact management. As impact becomes mainstream, and organizations become more accountable for the social and environmental impact of their economic activity, they require tools to manage it in an optimized manner. There are over 150 methodologies and frameworks developed, such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), the Value Balancing Alliance (VBA), the Impact-Weighted Accounts Project (IWAP), each with its limitations and advantages (Florman and Klingler-Vidra, 2016, p. 4). I would like to highlight a few that have helped us gain a shared understanding of how the ecosystem is answering this question. The first two guide our work at MAZE.

  1. Impact Management Project
  2. United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
  3. Impact-Weighted Accounts
  4. Impact Valuation Roundtable

The Impact Management Project (IMP) Framework makes it easy for businesses to measure and assess their impact based on five key questions:

  • WHAT? – What outcomes you are aiming for? Are you mitigating negative impact or contributing to positive impact?
  • WHO? – Who benefits from your solution?
  • HOW MUCH? – How broadly can the solution expand, in solving the problem? To which degree is it solving it? How long does change last?
  • CONTRIBUTION? – How the impact achieved compares with what would have happened anyway
  • RISK? – What are possible negative externalities of the solution? What can go wrong?

If you want to know more about the IMP, dive into this blogpost by my colleague and impact expert Inês Charro for more.

The second framework is the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an action-based, and solution-oriented approach published in 2015 in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, that aims to harmonize the terminology and actions organizations and institutions undertake to solve the most pressing social and environmental challenges until 2030. The European Union has agreed to implement the SDGs in its policies. They comprise 17 goals such as to ending poverty and hunger over quality education and gender equality. Read more about it here.

The third – Impact-Weighted Accounts (IWAs) – was developed by Harvard Business School, and was recently analyzed by my colleague Afonso Fontoura. IWAs are items on a financial statement which are added to supplement the statement of financial health and performance by reflecting a company’s positive and negative impacts on employees, customers, the environment, and the broader society.

The fourth methodology is the Impact Valuation Roundtable (IVR). It aims to compensate for the lack of information and transparency of traditional reporting. To do it, IVR enriches traditional reporting, from input-output reporting, and adds the impact valuation of businesses on top. This may include the social costs of externalities in a given currency (e.g. social costs of carbon emissions) as illustrated in their report:

Figure 5: The New Aspects of Impact Valuation by IVR (2017)
Figure 5: The New Aspects of Impact Valuation by IVR (2017)

Last but not least, one major issue with social impact assessment and reporting is greenwashing or impact washing. Impact washing is when a company or organization spends more time and money on marketing themselves as environmentally or socially friendly than on really having a social or environmental impact. Therefore, regular reports have been criticized by Porter & Kramer (2006, p.79f.) as anecdotal and uncoordinated to demonstrate a company’s social impact. The reports often leave out the bigger picture of the company’s social impact initiatives and actions are typically described in terms of money spent instead of impact.

The impact revolution is only getting started. The 17 UN SDGs can be estimated to cost the global economy in excess of $10 trillion. Therefore, the social and environmental challenges to be addressed in the near future require the participation of all economic agents. As we usually say at MAZE, global problems equal global opportunities. We find energy in finding innovative solutions to build a future for the many.

If you found this article helpful and would like to take this discussion further, reach out to me at

Featured art work sourced from BBC Culture.

🌱Knok healthcare closes a €1.7m investment to accelerate the democratisation of access to health, through video consultations

We are proud to lead this round for the Porto-based startup that improves access to essential healthcare services, along with Fundo de Inovação Social.

knok healthcare (knok), a Portuguese startup with a global footprint in the development of technology and the provision of clinical services through video consultation, announces its latest investment round of 1.7 million Euros, led by the social impact fund Mustard Seed MAZE e Fundo de Inovação Social, with the participation of FascinanteFólio from Porto and Ryse Asset Management from London. This investment will accelerate international expansion and the development of knok’s technology.

Knok’s mission is to contribute to universal access to healthcare, connecting doctors and patients through easy-to-use technology.

The global pandemic context has brought to the limelight the need to provide quality healthcare remotely, for example in the management of chronic, non-urgent patients, who are being particularly affected by the overload of health systems with COVID patients. This transition led hospital and insurance groups to look for alternative models of providing clinical care to their patients while maintaining operational clinical teams.

Serving a base of more than 1.2 million patients, knok is the Portuguese leader in video consultations, with prominent partners such as EuropAssistance, AdvanceCare and Medicare, Lusíadas Saúde from UnitedHealth Group, and NOS Telecom, among others. Knok is also present in Brazil, South Africa and Angola, among other geographies. Since the beginning of October, knok is an accredited service provider to the NHS in the UK, and it is now preparing the launch in India and Italy.

José Bastos, co-founder and CEO says: “We are very pleased for closing this round, which will allow us to strengthen the sales team and accelerate the entry into new markets with increasingly differentiating products and services. We believe that with the support of quality investors like ours, we will be able to generate even more social impact, bringing access to quality healthcare to many more millions of people”.

João Magalhães, co-founder and CTO says: “Knok is a solution built by doctors for doctors, designed with the best clinical practices in mind, with a focus on ease of use by those who are not tech specialists. I believe that our leadership position comes from the excellent product we offer. In our tech development roadmap, we have unique features such as multidisciplinary and group consultations, which will allow a practitioner, a patient and a family member or caregiver to participate in the same video consultation, sharing information in a secure and simple way while eliminating hurdles in the access to healthcare”.

Image for post
© Knok Healthcare

“The urgency to deliver remote medical services has been accelerated by the recent pandemic and, in many cases, has become the only option for chronically ill or non-urgent patients,” says Henry Wigan, partner at Mustard Seed MAZE, an impact fund headquartered in Lisbon and with investments across Europe. “We believe that knok has the required attributes to win in this market, promoting a significant improvement in access to healthcare, especially to the most vulnerable segments of the population, such as children and the elderly, and to populations in less urban locations.”

Knok’s success has been determined by its commitment to two critical factors: information security during video consultations and readiness to integrate in any clinical management system, which has differentiated knok from other existing and “adapted” players, such as WhatsApp or Zoom.

Knok was founded by José Bastos and João Magalhães in December 2015. Since its foundation, the company has served over 100 000 video consultations to improve access to healthcare services to those that need it the most.

Four ideas to embed impact within an organisation

‘The next decade will be defined by companies that have a social and environmental purpose’, said a partner of Index Ventures, one of the largest venture capital funds in Europe. The CEO of Y Combinator, one of the leading accelerators in the world which has invested in companies such as Airbnb, Dropbox, Reddit, among many others, also supports this view.

The fact that this type of analysis comes from venture capital funds and accelerators, which support and invest in the early stages of a company’s development, demonstrates the need, opportunity and change that we will see in the coming years.

I am privileged to work at MAZE, an impact venture created by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in 2013, exclusively oriented to support and invest in solutions for social and environmental challenges. We fulfil this mission in three ways: supporting public entities to innovate in the provision of social services, accelerating startups across Europe and investing through a venture capital fund.

As an impact company, it matters what we do, but also how we do it. Four principles guide how we achieve impact at MAZE:

Image for post
MAZE team in October 2019

1. Ensure the impact mission

The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is a shareholder in MAZE through only one share, a golden share. It gives the Foundation the right to veto strategic decisions that the MAZE management team makes that may compromise the company’s social and environmental mission. It is important to note that the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation was established in perpetuity and has as its fundamental purpose to improve people’s quality of life through art, charity, science, and education. Through this shareholder mechanism, the Foundation ensures the fulfilment of MAZE’s mission in the long term, regardless of changes that may exist in the management team.

2. Reinvestment of the value created

MAZE does not distribute dividends to its shareholders. The profits that the company generates through its activity are automatically reinvested in the company itself, to strengthen its capacity to fulfil its mission. This way, the value generated is reallocated in activities that continue to contribute to creating a positive impact. MAZE’s shareholders, who, along with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, are all employees who have been with the company for more than one year, have no economic benefit from these actions. The shareholder structure exists and includes employees to promote participatory management of the company.

3. Remuneration based on impact performance

The Mustard Seed MAZE fund is the result of a joint venture between MAZE and Mustard Seed, and it is the first independent and private fund recognised by the CMVM as a ‘social entrepreneurship fund’. For each investment that the fund makes, the investment team defines one or more impact metrics, as well as performance targets over a given period. These metrics and targets are then validated by an Advisory Board independent of the fund’s management team.

Any profits distributed to the fund’s management company are dependent on compliance with the established impact goals. In other words, if a company invested by the fund presents an excellent financial performance, but does not, for example, meet the goals of reducing CO2 or creating jobs with vulnerable populations, the management company is penalised. This mechanism incentivises the management team to ensure that the portfolio companies fulfil both financial, social and/or environmental goals.

4. Impact management

Impact is not binary; it is a spectrum. Furthermore, impact is made, not found, in partnership with startups, social organisations, large companies, public entities and private investors. In this sense, there are several strategies and ways to manage impact.

MAZE is the only Portuguese organisation that is a strategic partner of the Impact Management Project, used by more than 2000 organisations worldwide, including the OECD, United Nations, World Bank, Blackrock, Deutsche Bank, among others. This methodology does not aim to measure social and environmental outcomes or monetise them. Its main benefit is to create a consensus on the different ways to classify impact and the different contributions that investors and companies have.

MAZE adopted the Impact Management Project in 2018 to map the various impact strategies that we seek to have in our work with the public sector, accelerator, and venture capital fund. At the end of 2020, we will publicly share the results of our impact management, and we will start to release these data annually.

MAZE’s decisions have always been linked to our reality and to the way we answer the question ‘how can we create a positive impact on society and the planet?’

The path taken by MAZE and the four principles we follow to structure the impact within our organisation do not apply in all cases. Participatory shareholder structures are neither adaptable nor efficient for many companies; the distribution of value to shareholders is fundamental to the sustainability of companies and the economy; strategies for creating impact vary from industry to industry.

Each organisation will have a different and tailored answer to its reality. However, contrary to what happened in the last decades, all companies now have to ask the same question ‘how can we create a positive impact on society and the planet?’.

How they answer will define their long-term success.

Originally published in Portuguese at on September 18, 2020.

10 ways to keep your online community engaged (or to throw a great house party)

There’s nothing like a good house party, right? You’re not alone. I feel you.
Well, let me tell you there are at least 10 ways a good online community is somewhat like a good house party. For clarity, and as program manager, I will use the example of Maze X, an impact startup accelerator based in Lisbon, Portugal, to explain how we have succeeded in getting the party started and going. I hope these action-oriented tips help you to create great community engagement — or throw an amazing house party after the pandemic.

Set the scene, guests are coming

Preparation is the mother of a good party, right? The same goes for a good community. Decide on where your party, aka your community, takes place, who takes part, and why anyone should be part of it in the first place.

  • Why? At Maze X, we come together to make a positive impact on the people and the planet.
  • Who? Impact entrepreneurs, advisors, experts, and the Maze X team.
  • Where? Zoom calls for in-person status updates, a slack workspace for ongoing discussions, and follow-ups.

If you cannot answer these questions, it’s time to have a look at this community canvas and fill it in. It helped us a great deal and is available for free.

Give people gentle guidance and context

“Friday 10 PM at my house. Theme: All White Everything” might be an invitation to a friend’s theme party. In slack it sounds like this:

Image for post
Welcome message to the MAZE slack community with startups

Three things I do here:

  • Mention the purpose of the community: Impact
  • Showing who else is here
  • Giving guidelines & set out values

These things are important so people know what is happening. An overview of channels can also help new arrivals to know where to find what. Coming back to the house party analogy: you wouldn’t put your guests in a room without saying anything, would you? You would welcome them and introduce them to one another. The same goes for the online experience. Matchmaking and building bridges are very powerful.

Note down who’s participating

I am a fan of the saying “what doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get managed”, so if you can get hands-on numbers (messages, participation, interaction, community event feedback) this might be very helpful. Just like you want to measure how many people are coming to your party, you would want to do the same for your community. No need to make a science out of it but if you see that there are members that are not participating much, act upon it. Next, you want to include them, which I will elaborate on in the next tip.

Be proactive in checking in on members

“Oh my gosh, is everyone doing well at my party? Do we have enough drinks? Who doesn’t have a drink in their hand? Who is standing outside a circle all alone?” — Yes, I am that kind of host when it comes to parties. I recommend doing the same for managing a community. Be proactive in checking in on people individually. Do they have everything they need? Can you make their lives easier somehow? Is there anything missing in the community or the community channels? It is worth checking in on them every once in a while, especially on the ones that went silent. That’s how you activate members and develop your community — because members always know best what they want to see in the community. You are there to serve.

Don’t be top-down, or your party will go belly up

Giving guidance is good, but playing the strict host will make you a party pooper. Don’t be a party pooper. Be a party rockstar. For that, you got to be smooth and gentle to guide people or make them aware of how certain things are dealt with. “Are you looking for the bathroom? It’s actually over there.” This party situation translated into your community conversation looks as follows: When people post something on the wrong channel, you could tell them “That’s a great question for channel X. Let’s follow up there”. This is much smoother than calling anyone out.

Have fun, darling

Enjoy what you’re doing as host and express it in any way you communicate. During the party, walk around with a smile and be attentive. Same for an online community. Even through a platform like slack, people can sense a smile. At least the tone of someone being happy. Keep that in mind and say “cheeeeese” while typing 😊

Have a common lingo

Do you have tech friends? If you do, I am sure you’ve experienced the common lingo aspect of a community already. For me as a non-techie, it can be hard to follow a discussion about SDKs and IDEs (don’t ask me what that means, I have no clue. I just pulled it in from here). However, you can see how techies enjoy it. They enjoy the jargon. And that is the whole point. People love a common community language because they feel heard and understood. They feel good about themselves as members of the community. Our community is talking about impact (that is social and environmental good for the world) and so the lingo I use as a community manager is also framed in this direction. Every week I wish everyone a good week with a good impact for instance.

Do the unexpected

The best parties are always the ones where things happen that no one expects to happen. Do the same with your community. For Maze X, we once had a surprise startup pitch in front of teenagers. No startup was expecting it but everyone loved it. It’s certainly something our community will remember. Try to bring in moments that are unexpected but special. Those are the ones people will remember and carry around in their hearts.


That’s right fellas, that’s why you came to the house party and I double down on that for a good community. You would want to celebrate your victory and laugh about your failures. That’s what creates trust and makes you a meaningful community. At Maze X we have a #kudos channel (kudos to Melanie from Panion for bringing it up). There we celebrate each other’s successes. Lots of ❤❤❤ in there.

Build a habit

Okay, you’ve had this one-time party. What’s next? Let’s do this every month or every year? Everyone loves the annual Christmas celebration or New Years’ Eve. Why? Because you can count on it and it’s great consistency in our lives. Building a habit is powerful in creating trust and comfort within a community. Again, what goes for parties certainly goes for communities. At Maze X, we have a weekly meeting with the startup cohort, a weekly workshop, and a weekly inspirational talk. Always at the same time and usually the same duration. This is a habit that contributes massively to the purpose of the community — impact.

If you liked it, leave a clap or two. See you at the next house party 🎉

Inspired by Get Together: How to build a community with your people by Bailey RichardsonKai Elmer SottoKevin Huynh. Kudos to them!

My first 90 Days in Venture

After spending almost three years as a consultant, it has been three months since I have officially made the move to being an investment analyst at Mustard Seed MAZE impact VC fund. The past few months have been both challenging and rewarding. In many ways, venture is like an infinite hike and I am only in the beginning. If you are interested in partaking this journey too, here’s what helped me get started.

In the venture fast-paced environment, I found myself involved in different tasks during my first months:

  • Managing the social and environmental impact of our portfolio companies to present to our LPs
  • Attending demo days
  • Participating in introduction calls and performing due diligence on founders
  • Learning the legal documents of a deal
  • Writing rejection emails (the not so funny part of our job)
  • Analysing market trends
  • The list goes on

As you see, joining a venture capital fund can be overwhelming at first, as you are constantly flooded with information on different companies, sectors, other VCs and names you have never heard before. I first focused on learning about the portfolio companies. From there, I began developing a VC network and started to screen opportunities. You will see that time will fly by and requests start increasing since the moment you change your LinkedIn name to something as “VC investor”. In the next paragraphs, here are 6 tips that helped me keep grounded:

1. Get acquainted with the VC process

There are several books you can read that will give you a good overview of the funding roadmap. Personally, I read Secrets of Sand Hill Road by Scott Kupor, but there are others popular in venture and recommended by many, such as Venture Deals by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson. One of these two books should give you a head start in what you need to know from pitch to term sheet details.

2. Listen to Podcasts

Podcasts are a great tool to keep up with recent investments, as well as hear top investors’ views on market dynamics. Car, bus, metro or even at the beach (if you are lucky to be in Portugal) are all a good spare for your otherwise idle time. I personally like to hear Harry Stebbings on The Twenty Minute VCevery Mondays and Fridays, usually featuring an investor and an entrepreneur in each day. Associated, aired on Tuesdays, is also a good one for everyone entering this business and looking to understand the daily life of analysts/associates in other ventures.

3. Be on top of what is happening

Read, read, read and once you have done it read some more! Create a routine and block one hour every day on your agenda to read blog posts, articles, newsletters and social media posts. Techcrunch and Venture Beat are good news websites that, together with following investors and VC firms on twitter and LinkedIn, will allow you to be on top of the most recent investments and market trends. There is also a great weekly sum up of the latest funding activity across Europe, written by a friend at RLC Ventures, Oliver Kicks, called The Seed Weekly. His piece is a two-pager newsletter sent every Tuesdays morning that will keep you in the loop on the hottest venture events.

4. Expand your network and build a personal brand

Once you start getting on the rails with your daily tasks, it is important to start working on your personal brand as an investor. With this I mean start making friends in venture and give them a reason to share ideas with you and your fund. Start by mapping other funds with a similar investment thesis and finding an analyst/associate with a background you can relate to, where asking for an introduction makes sense and both parts can gain something from the relation — as in any (relation), you always need to give something back, so remember to share back deal flow and opinions when appropriate! It can take a while for these relationships to pay off but give it time and a couple of calls and the outcome is worth it. This group of people will grow at the same pace as you and become a significant part of your deal flow inbound, as you will become theirs.

On a separate note, it is also important to put your opinions and experiences out there by developing a digital presence. Document your journey: write about your thoughts, learnings or experiences in venture and share it with your network, as I am currently starting by reaching out to you.

5. Screen and observe

My advice before starting to reach out to founders is to observe. First, start by understanding which opportunities are interesting for your fund — investment criteria, strategy, stages, market size, sectors, etc. A good way to do this is by assessing your fund’s past investments and understand their investment thesis, as this will become your benchmark when screening opportunities. Second, ask to participate in your colleagues’ meetings and learn their process in assessing a company and a founder. Once you have done this, you are halfway to becoming a natural in sourcing, the rest will come with experience! Finally, build your own script and start attending meetings. To do this, sign for demo days, cold call founders and take the most of your network referrals. Repetition seems to be key in this learning process, therefore, the more you do, the more you will be able to recognize patterns and develop your gut feeling. Ayrton Senna said once on an interview “And suddenly I realised I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct”. This instinct is something I believe we can build in an industry like venture.

6. Be nice to founders

Remember, the same way you pick founders to invest, they pick you. Investments are partnerships. You need to be clear about why you are the right source of capital for them — it is your duty to master your elevator pitch about your fund! If you end up concluding the opportunity is not interesting for the fund, after all, let the founder know why and be respectful of their time the same way you expect them to be respectful of yours. At Mustard Seed MAZE, we live by Patti Smith’s words Your name is your currency and kindness is a good way to value this very delicate currency. Rejection emails are painful to write but if you take the time to give a detailed reason as to why you are passing the opportunity, founders usually are thankful for your input even when you do not fill their pockets with money! If you build a good relationship with founders, it is common they will recommend you to other founders and bring you more opportunities to look at.

With this said, what awaits me next is dealing with the moving target dilemma. There is always something new to learn and my goal every day is to be a true sponge and absorb all the market info I can in due time.

In one year, I aim to master introduction calls with founders and develop my hunch to assess ventures faster and accurately. I would like to believe that one day I would no longer be following a mastery, but an instinct, but the more people in venture I speak to, the more I understand that we are always absolute beginners. That is the beauty of it.

How Biology, Acting and Film prepared me for the VC world

When I was asked what my dream job was, I answered different things throughout my life: a doctor, a biologist, a writer, an actress, a director, a film teacher at university. None of these became true. While searching for a career path, I dealt with a significant amount of frustration. I wandered in the fields of Biology, Theatre and Film, and through the fear of yet another wrong choice, I learned resilience.

This is not, however, a text about the importance of resilience in life. There are plenty of people far more qualified than I am to write about it. You see, for a long time I looked at my career wanderings as failures — I never thought I would actually find them useful learnings for my current job as an operations manager of a VC fund. And yet they were. Here’s how:

Biology: looking at everything with a microscopical lens

One of my favourite things when studying Biology was working with a microscope. The sheer level of detail something as small as a cell can have never ceased to amaze me. The membrane, the mitochondrion, the nucleus, and many other elements, working together in a team effort to become the foundation of life. You learn to become detail-focused when you look at that microscope lens.

Working in operations, I picture each of our processes as a cell. My job is to ensure it is running seamlessly and to look at each of its elements when there is space for improvement. In this job, being detail-focus is critical. And very useful when working with numbers and one single typo can take hours to find on an Excel sheet. Three months into my first corporate job, I had a client tell me I had un oeil de lynx because I spotted a missing zero on a settlement SWIFT message. At the time, I remembered my hours of eye practice in front of a microscope. Now, I keep in mind that same level of detail and focus when I prepare individualised quarterly reports to all our investors, and (ironically) each cell of an Excel is a key piece of the whole puzzle. Scrutinizing each one is my method to get closer to a perfect report.

Acting: empathy and my relationship with stakeholders

The purpose of an actor is literally to embody another person. Believe me, it is hard. I once had to play the role of a pain-killer addict housewife while not being married or addicted to any substance. How would I relate to that? You try wondering how the character feels, you do a lot of research, and you do your best to bring your own experiences and memories into bringing the character to life. Throughout my auditions, I eventually became more and more conscious of this exercise of empathy when preparing for a role.

The learning persists and I do this exercise every day. I engage with the MSM team, the founders, the investors, the service providers on a daily basis, and I find it crucial to position myself on the other side to better manage these relationships. I try to understand how they feel and what are their expectations on each interaction. Something that is obvious to me, is not necessarily on the other side of the conversation. This becomes poignant when dealing with touchy topics (and money in the context of VC sure is one of them). When preparing for drawdown requests, I keep in mind the need for empathy in my communication. I try to promote the same on the other side by helping our investors understand the importance of what we do at the MSM Fund — bringing positively impactful businesses to life. Depeche Mode sing that “before you come to any conclusions, try walking in my shoes”. And I see this empathy as a key element on all of my relationships.

Film: belief in the right stories

Blockbuster movies usually have humongous budgets. It is easier to expect a positive outcome when the project can afford an award-winning cast and crew and high-end CGI effects. Yet more often than not I find myself thinking these movies are dull and more of the same. That is where the beauty of indie cinema lies: these are projects that transpire with passion because a dedicated team believed in the story and wanted to make it happen.

That is what we do at MSM. We are far from being a blockbuster VC fund. Yet we have a team of enthusiastic people who believe that through our investments, we back founders who want to tell their stories and bring a positive impact into our society that is craving for it. All they need is a chance. For us, it is a thrill and a privilege to invest in founders whose passion and commitment are evident in their companies. We help these stories be told. As I admired the teams behind these stories in film, I do now in real life. And I too feel a sense of commitment to these people that makes me do my job with the same passion. Believing in these stories is my biggest motivation.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to my 13-year old nephew about his dream job. At such a young age, he is worried he might get it wrong. I could not help but wonder about my own “mistakes” and where they led me to. I had to go through many uncertainties in my career before getting to a place where I have a sense of mission. And I still don’t have it all figured out — quite honestly, who does? If there is something this pandemic has taught us is that there is only so much you can plan in life. I once heard an actor say his motto in life is Adapt and Overcome. I love the idea. You face each challenge and you thrive as best you can. From this lens, no experience is a waste of time, but a learning opportunity.

How to set the scene for a successful Corporate/Startup pilot

I’ve always been a believer in the value of Corporate/Startup relationships. Today, I am lucky enough to witness the synergies of such partnerships at MAZE, and we’ve compiled a few tips on how to set the scene for successful Corporate/Startup pilots.

But first, I have a confession*.

During my corporate years, I was a pain in the ass to my bosses. I was restless and impatient. I wanted to see change, and I wanted it fast. I lost the count to the number of times I broke into their offices with revolutionary ideas to make our lives easier, and completely change the way we worked.

At some point, I was actually the person making PowerPoint slides listing all the things we could learn from Startups — there was even one explaining the differences between Unicorns (them) and Dinosaurs (us). Charming.

It was tiring but I had fun. More importantly, it was useful because it taught me a lot about the decision-making process of corporates and all its implications. It was also useful for my bosses because it forced them to consider and be open to different possibilities.

A few years later, when I joined MAZE, I was given the challenge to make Corporate/Startup relationships work (considering a future post on karma, the universe, planets alignment, and all of that).

Today I know that Startups have a lot to learn with Corporates as well — on structure, processes, doing things at scale and long-term vision, to name a few. I also know that these 2 worlds are drastically different and hard to combine, but they have so much to gain working together. Definitely worth the shot.

At Maze X, our impact accelerator, we do this by running Corporate/Startup pilots.

Meet our pilots

This year’s edition we have 3 Startups piloting with our Corporate Partners

  1. NU-RISE is testing its product with Luz Saúde, which will allow doctors to monitor the levels of radiation being delivered near tumours and surrounding organs at risk.
  2. MysteryMinds will be testing MysteryCoffee at PLMJ, aiming to create meaningful connections between their employees, from different practices and hierarchical levels.
  3. Electricfeel is helping BNP Paribas understand their current mobility landscape while assessing the opportunities to reduce the negative impact of moving their workforce every day.

Whether you are a Startup or a Corporate, when starting a pilot, there are a few details that you should have in mind. We’ve prepared a quick checklist of things to have in place before starting this relationship that has mainly to do with expectations alignment: agreeing on a plan, a common language, and a comfortable pace.

For Startups

Get to know your client

Spend time understanding the Corporate’s reality, their culture, their industry and why they want to work with you in the first place. Learn as much as you can about them by listening. Do this before presenting a formal proposal. If you see it just as a commercial opportunity, you are probably missing the point.

Make it unique

Build a proposal that shows what you’ve learned so far, that feels exciting, but it is reasonable and adapted to their reality. Justify what you are presenting: what pain are you trying to solve? How do you plan to deliver what they value? Be flexible. Sometimes Corporates are looking for state of the art innovation, others it’s the stories and new ways of keeping their workforce engaged that count. Whatever it is, make sure you have the full picture and see how you can help with that.

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BNP Paribas’ team at a Maze X sunset last year, showing their support to Chatterbox, a startup they are piloting with

Nurture this relationship

You will probably have a key point of contact inside the Corporate. This is your champion, your biggest fan (and friend) inside the organization. She is the person that will make it work internally. Make sure you make her life easier by being present and responsive and adjust to her pace. Take a moment to understand what your champion has on her plate and be mindful of that. You will be expected to push them — as most likely, they are hoping to learn how to be more agile with you — but try to find the right balance.

Involve your own team

It’s common to see pilot opportunities negotiated by Startups’ C-levels. If this is the case, make sure you include your team from the beginning, let them know what this means for your organization, why you need this, and what they will learn from this experience. Help them split their time wisely between this and their daily work. Having the whole team on board will be critical in the long-run.

For Corporates

Choose your champions wisely

You probably know already who they are — your innovation superheroes. They are resilient, curious, and excited to challenge the status quo.

We know we are very privileged for understanding the value of having these people on board. Daniela (from PLMJ), Tanita and Patrícia (from BNP Paribas) and Gonçalo (from Luz Saúde) thank you for the drive that a pilot (and any organization) needs.

Accelerate R&D internally

Use this opportunity to accelerate and test things internally — being it a new way of working, a new team set-up, surveying your employees about a pressing challenge, or speeding-up decision making. Think about what you can accelerate besides the product/service you’re going to test.

Be clear about success

Think about what success looks like. Be clear about your goals for the pilot, share it with the Startup, and get together to define the best impact metrics that you would like to see measured by the end of it. Starting with that goal in mind is critical for a successful outcome.

Leverage on the opportunities

If innovation and culture change is something you are aiming for, spend some time thinking of how you are embedding that in your organization. It won’t happen from day to night just because you ran a pilot. Leverage on Startup’s stamina and agility to influence your own culture. Here are a few things to try:

  • Think about who in your organization would easily adopt the solution to test it internally. They will most likely become your influencers. Let them spread the word
  • Build a strong internal communication plan that triggers curiosity
  • Invite the founders to speak with your teams (on their journey and what they’ve learned, how to pitch, how to do consumer research, …)
  • Schedule internal monthly reflections for everyone involved to think about how to incorporate what they have been learning from this experience

Although we’ve seen these things work, we recognise that every pilot is unique and we never approach one with assumptions made.

For us, it will always be a learning process: we test things and see how it works, we speak with Startups and Corporates that have done it in the past and get inspired by their experiences.

We love stories — of successes and failures, and what people and their companies got from these experiences. And that is why we would love to hear it from you too.

Do you have a good pilot story to share with us? Is there any tip you would add to this list? I would love to learn more from you. Reach out and let’s talk!

* This post was written with Usher’s Confessions on repeat.

The opportunity to improve the lives of half the population

There are 3.9 billion women in the world which corresponds to 49% of the world’s population. However, and despite the fact that women drive about 85% of consumption decisions [1], most products have not been developed considering their specific needs.

There are several examples that corroborate this phenomenon. Basic life support training for resuscitation from cardiorespiratory arrest is performed on male mannequins, which explains why a man’s public CPR survival rate is 23% higher than of a woman [2]. There is discomfort in performing CPR to women because it is a different body from the one in which people were trained to perform in public emergencies.

Until 2012, car accident simulation tests in the USA did not include women, which resulted in inappropriate seat belts and a higher likelihood of severe consequences compared to men. In the European Union, the statistics are similar: only one in five security tests with specific regulation requires the use of a woman as mannequin and only in the passenger’s seat [3].

In the health field, for example, the databases on cardiovascular diseases and associated risk factors are primarily based on men, although cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death for women globally [4]. These and many other examples are described in the book “Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men” by Caroline Criado Perez.

As an investor, my job is to identify good investment opportunities. As an impact investor, my mandate is to find investment opportunities that improve the lives of people and the planet. As a man, I feel the responsibility to learn more about why we are not addressing the needs of half of the world’s population. As a result, I have been talking to women to educate myself on how to tackle this issue successfully.

Products that are adequate for women and meet their specific needs benefit from a set of tailwinds:

Market size:

‘Female tech’ is the industry that includes software, diagnostics and products, that leverage technology to improve female health. In 2025, this industry is expected to be valued at 50 billion euros [5]. This figure does not include, for example, feminine hygiene products, which alone is estimated at around 33 billion euros globally. In 2012, venture capital investment in ‘female tech’ was about 57 million euros; in 2020, it is expected to reach 1.3 billion euros, a 22x growth.

High-frequency usage of products:

As you read this, there are around 80 million women in the world in their menstrual period. Two billion women have their period once a month for an average of 40 years, the equivalent of about 12,000 menstrual products used during a lifetime. In comparison, a man who shaves every day for 60 years, and changes the blade every week, will use about 3,000 blades during his life. Recurrence of usage is a proxy for why better products are likely to be quickly adopted.

Diversity of verticals within the same category:

Femtech is not only about menstruation and fertility. Several opportunities include adapting the design of everyday products to suit the needs of women (for example, smartphones, office design, sports equipment, among others). The opportunity to innovate in goods and services that give women a better experience and outcomes apply to almost all sectors one can think of.

Change of narrative:

It may seem like a thing of the past, but the Oscars Academy in 2020 banned a Frida Mom brand advertisement for portraying a woman, that had just become a mother, getting up at night to change the postpartum pad while her newborn cried in the bedroom. On the other hand, an ad in the Super Bowl, seen on average by 90 million people, showed a man trying to guess the taste of Doritos through contact with his genitals. While the generalist media reinforce the taboo around women’s health, there is an opportunity for differentiation from a breed of new brands. These brands have the chance to talk and communicate about a dear topic to consumers while creating a strong relationship with them, reflecting on higher brand loyalty, engagement and retention. Many brands have followed this path, such as Ohne, Flo, Clue, Brarista, Elvie, among others.

At MAZE, in all the areas we work in, we are actively looking for product innovations developed with and for women, and we are motivated to continue to learn and grow our knowledge in this area.

The impact and economic potential of serving women with better products have been dormant for decades, and there is an urgency to change this paradigm. It is up to the community of investors, entrepreneurs, corporates, and social organizations to shape this path — the opportunity exists, and half the population of our planet deserves better.

[1] 30 statistics when marketing to women
[2] Eight ways the world is not designed for women
[3] The crash test bias
[4] Cardiovascular disease and the female disadvantage

Note: This article is about the economic opportunity that exists in the development of products specifically targeted at women. It is not an article about the inequalities of access and representation of women in the professional world or the themes of diversity and inclusion in general. These themes are subject to internal reflection in all areas of MAZE (Maze X accelerator, MSM fund and public sector area) where we are working to improve and where we plan to deliver results, not communicate intentions.

Originally published at on July 30, 2020.

6 lessons skateboarding has taught me about my first job

After I graduated from college, I took one year off and decided to learn how to skateboard. My life has been led by unpredictability ever since I can remember. I could never have imagined I would end up working at an impact company as my very first job. I’m loving the ride, but since I was caught off guard, I needed all the help I could get. Thankfully, skateboarding has proven itself very useful. Here are 6 (of many) lessons skateboarding has taught me about the adult world that I am now facing every day:

1. Do not expect immediate success

This first one is a classic, right? Yet, I’m constantly trying to remind myself of this lesson.

I would never expect to land a kickflip on the very first time I step on a skateboard, so why would I expect to know how to do everything on my first job? Skateboarding, just like starting a new job, takes time, commitment, and a lot of patience. Most beginners skateboarders don’t realize that because when we see our role models success, we don’t often see the work it took them to get there. Set your goals and respect your timings, with time, practice and work we will get there too!

2. Always learning, always evolving

A few months ago, I randomly grabbed a book that was in my office. It was “Good to Great”, and inside that book, there was one quote that stood out for me: “I never stopped trying to become qualified for the job”. This is a perfect metaphor for the skateboarding world. We are seeing a really fast evolution of skateboarding, we don’t know where it will get us, there are so many tricks, skills and combinations that skaters are in a constant learning process. Continuous learning is the necessary attitude for a first job: let yourself learn with the clean conscious that there’s not an end in sight, it’s always possible to improve and remind yourself to learn something new often.

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Cartoon by Henry Jones on Instagram

n the confidence to try again, learn new tricks and enjoy the ride (not to be corny… the ride really is more enjoyable when you’re not constantly killing your shins on every trick attempt).

4. Take risks… but measure them

In Portuguese, we have this saying that goes like this Quem não arrisca não petisca. The literal translation would be something like the one that doesn’t take a risk, doesn’t eat. Skateboarding is all about risks, and you will indeed end up eating concrete on 50% of the risks you take, but it’s also true that if you are not willing to take risks, you never learn anything new and will never improve. Nonetheless, it is always important to understand your limitations and measure the risk you are taking. It is vital to be aware of your own capabilities before trying to heelflip a set of stairs (or in my case, before trying to write a professional article for Medium).

5. You do you

I grew up watching other skaters, and I often have the urge to try to skate like them and I never, not even once, looked good doing so. Be unique. That’s what skateboarding has taught me. To be honest, the real lesson was “be unique because you look ridiculous trying imitate your favourite skater’s style”. In both skateboarding and business, there is never only one right way to do something. Allow your friends, co-workers, role models, to inspire you and push you to the next level but always try to understand what works best for you, be aware of your strengths and express yourself.

6. It’s always better with a team

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Cartoon by Henry Jones on instagram

One of the coolest things about skateboarding is that you do not need to be with anyone to be able to skate, yet it is so much more fun to have friends around to cheer you up and help you. Working has proven to be just the same: I’m responsible for my own work, and when I need someone, my team is there to hold my hand and help me out. As beginners, we will need some guidance, support, and a few yeewws* from time to time, whether it is at the office or at the skatepark.

I would like to enlighten how the “passion” factor has the biggest influence on both my skateboarding and my job. And if there’s something skateboarding should teach everyone is to try to do something just because you love it, it will make everything else better.

Have fun, go skate!

*A typical form of cheering in the skateboarding community is to yell “yeeww” whenever you see someone doing something cool. Beginners, both in skateboarding or when starting a new job, need a lot of “yeewws”. If you’re working with someone who’s trying really hard, remember to “Yeeww” them every now and then.

What a ‘green recovery’ might look like

“Whatever it takes!” has become a motto for saving the global economy as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the planet and shuts down entire countries. Governments are pushing unprecedented stimulus packages, now exceeding 10 trillion USD according to estimates from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

This systemic response to the shock the pandemic has brought upon the global economy is analogous to the idea of ‘wartime effort’ that has been revendicated by scientists and activists alike in what respects addressing the current climate and environmental emergencies.

According to the IPCC[1], global emissions should decline by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 to have some level of confidence in limiting global warming to 1.5ºC by the end of the century. Roughly this means that the expected 7% decrease in emissions we are experiencing in 2020[2], needs to happen every year throughout the next decade. And that is, not taking into account the most recent assumptions about climate sensitivity, that can make the 1.5ºC scenario impossible to achieve.

This alignment is creating an imperative for convergence in tackling these two wicked problems. The recovery must be green. The coronavirus demonstrated that radical adaptation and behavioral change could happen in a very short period, and to ensure a planet that is habitable for future generations we need to act now with the understanding that what happens in the next couple years will command the course of history.

In a nutshell, this means that structural transformations need to happen in the way we produce and consume the goods society depends on the most. At the same time, governments create new jobs and restore the economic power of households and businesses. There are at least three areas where change might be especially relevant:

Resilient and restorative food systems

Our food systems are not sustainable, accounting for up to 37% of global GHG emissions[3], and land-use change, mainly due to agricultural expansion, is the leading driver of negative impacts on nature[4]. Ecology must be central in food production and ecosystems must regenerate and become more resilient to deal with the consequences of climate change. Agroecological practices that respect nature’s processes must be adopted widely while strengthening rural areas through the promotion of short circuits and competitive local economies. Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) schemes are promising market instruments that pay landowners that prioritize positive outcomes for ecosystem services such as carbon capture, regulation of water and air quality, and biodiversity conservation. A good example is the Environmental Stewardship scheme, run by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs of the UK Government that has been successfully paying landowners for management practices that provide ecosystem services since 2005.

Smart and renewable energy

Clean and affordable energy is at the core of the transition. Besides the independence from fossil fuels, large investments in renewable energy sources will create thousands of jobs. Technology has been advancing quickly both in efficiency and storage, but grids must become smarter and integrated. Mobility must become electrical and electricity decarbonized. Integrated technologies such as microgrids, AI, and blockchain could create ‘IoT energy systems’ that optimize energy use. The Innovation and Networks Executive Agency of the European Commission has been pioneering in supporting R&D projects in topics such as grid stability, local energy systems, and flexible energy resources.

Circularity in manufactured goods

Manufactured and transformed goods need to fully embrace circularity. Natural resources are increasingly scarce, and waste is a growing problem. Ecodesign can avert most of the negative environmental impacts of products and supply chains need support to change rapidly. Luckily the adoption of circular processes might turn a profit and entire industries are adapting their production models and implementing new technologies. The emergence of industrial symbiosis is a critical example that enables economies of scale. The Kalundborg Park in Denmark is known for becoming the first industrial symbiosis in the world whereby companies use each other’s by-products, water and energy streams. According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, direct savings of €24 million per year can be accounted for by the nine partners of the project.

The concerted effort

Such an effort will need to be concerted among every sphere of society and integrated into every sector of economic activity, entire industries need to close doors, and many companies will have to reimagine their businesses. There will be winners and losers, and that knowledge might be the key to drive this collective process. This transition must create more inclusive and equitable societies and must be led by democracy and international cooperation.

The complexity of this issue goes beyond the architecture of our governance frameworks and requires bold and transformative action by everyone everywhere, cross-sector cooperation of businesses and governments is urgent and must be simplified through administrative reforms that empower public servants towards action.

We have done the math, and there are things we must do. Quoting the renowned primatologist Jane Goodall in a recent interview “We must change our ways.”

[1] IPCC, 2018: Summary for Policymakers. In: Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, H.-O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J.B.R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M.I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, and T. Waterfield (eds.)]. In Press.

[2] Le Quéré, C., Jackson, R.B., Jones, M.W. et al. Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement. Nat. Clim. Chang. (2020).

[3] IPCC, 2019: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems [P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, E. Calvo Buendia, V. Masson-Delmotte, H.- O. Pörtner, D. C. Roberts, P. Zhai, R. Slade, S. Connors, R. van Diemen, M. Ferrat, E. Haughey, S. Luz, S. Neogi, M. Pathak, J. Petzold, J. Portugal Pereira, P. Vyas, E. Huntley, K. Kissick, M. Belkacemi, J. Malley, (eds.)]. In press.

[4] IPBES (2019): Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. S. Díaz, J. Settele, E. S. Brondízio E.S., H. T. Ngo, M. Guèze, J. Agard, A. Arneth, P. Balvanera, K. A. Brauman, S. H. M. Butchart, K. M. A. Chan, L. A. Garibaldi, K. Ichii, J. Liu, S. M. Subramanian, G. F. Midgley, P. Miloslavich, Z. Molnár, D. Obura, A. Pfaff, S. Polasky, A. Purvis, J. Razzaque, B. Reyers, R. Roy Chowdhury, Y. J. Shin, I. J. Visseren-Hamakers, K. J. Willis, and C. N. Zayas (eds.). IPBES secretariat, Bonn, Germany. 56 pages.

Image by Roy Buri from Pixabay

Want to report your impact? Here is a list to get you started

Over the past few months, our team has been focused on assessing our impact: internally, as an organisation working within a community and an environment, and externally, through the projects we have been supporting. This blog post details one of the frameworks that has helped us in this endeavour, the Impact Management Project (IMP).

Is my impact bigger than yours?

This title illustrates one of the problems in conversations around impact. The other issues in these conversations tend to follow a pattern: definition, measurement, and the path forward. Finding common ground when answering the first two questions poses a challenge that often prevents us from looking at the latter.

Let me first address what impact is. The origin of the word lies in the Latin expression impactus that can roughly translate as strike against. If you take its etymological meaning literally, in the context of today’s conversation, impact means we are pushing against or fighting for something. In our case, at MAZE, we are pushing against social and environmental problems. So, that is settled.

The solution for the second problem is less clear, and it is the core of why I am writing to you today: how to pursue accountability in the context of the impact ecosystem.

Our team cares deeply about understanding if the strategies we deploy to solve social and environmental challenges and the decisions we make, on human capital allocation, are maximising the efficiency in how we answer the problems we strike against. The Impact Management Project (IMP) has developed a framework that aims to consolidate a holistic approach to impact based on five key questions. By answering these questions, each project is classified into ABC categories. From there, a matrix is developed where the project’s impact intercepts with the investor’s positioning towards that project.

It is by combining these two vectors that the assessment is made, on where the investor’s impact lies. For startups, this framework can also be useful, as it can assess the impact that arises, strictly from the project itself.

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Based on the IMP Framework

When trying to decide how to best manage our impact, the IMP is helping us get closer to an answer. I hope it helps you too.

1. What?

Think about the type of outcomes you are aiming for. Is your intervention mitigating a negative outcome or contributing to create a positive one? There are industries where creating change means lessening an existing evil and others where you get a chance to revolutionise a system and develop a good solution, from scratch. Let me illustrate, using the case of Student Finance, the first investment made by our MSM fund. It is a platform that analyses real-time job market data and partners with education providers of ‘in-demand’ skills, to finance their students through Income Share Agreements (“ISAs”). Student Finance designed a solution that is revolutionising access to education.

2. Who?

Who benefits from your solution? Is it a well-served population, who gets to choose yours from a pool of alternatives, or is it an underserved population, for whom, options are narrower? The Social Impact Bond Projeto Família is an intervention that works with children at risk, and their families, to prevent unnecessary foster-care placement. These children are an especially vulnerable population for whom there are not many support options, given the complexity of the problem at hands and the lack of monetisable ways to address it. Projeto Família works exclusively with underserved populations.

3. How much?

Break down this question into parts: scale, depth, and duration. Simple enough: how broadly can the solution expand, in solving the problem? To which degree is it solving it? How long does change last? Impact enablers tend to focus too much on depthSometimes, a marginal scale that lasts through time, in the case of complex problems, is just as good of a way to strike against. Goodbag is a startup from the first cohort of Maze-X, our pan-European impact startup accelerator. The team developed a smart reusable shopping bag that connects the customer’s phone and rewards them with exclusive discounts while allowing users to plant trees every time they bring their bag. Even though it would be difficult to solve the plastic problem by using only a reusable bag, Goodbag’s scale potential can certainly make a dent in the problem.

4. Contribution

Tough one. It means assessing how the impact achieved compares with what would have happened anyway. In an ideal world, it would mean experimental or quasi-experimental research conducted to verify that the solution is, in fact, the reason why the problem is getting solved. However, such studies represent a bureaucratic and cost burden that is difficult for most enterprises to justify and, as such, we must settle for the limits of reasonability. Relying on being reasonable, can be tricky if the incentives push us towards assuming that our answer is the reason why the puzzle is being solved. Even so, it is often the case that solutions are designed in a simple enough way, to anger an economist, by making correlation mean the same as causality. Take the example of the Academia de Código Social Impact Bond. Academia de Código is a startup that works with unemployed people and teaches them to code, over the course of 14 weeks. So far, more than half of the students that took part in the Social Impact Bond have entered the job market, working primarily as coders. We have not conducted a randomised controlled trial, but it seems reasonable to assume Academia de Código’s significant contribution in changing these people’s professional path.

5. Risk

Tougher one. It is essential to measure a project’s risk pulse: understand possible negative externalities, the efficiency of the solution, the alignment of the incentives, and all other potential caveats. Since taking risk is necessary to change the status quo, we may find ourselves lured into risk-taking, without properly contemplating the consequences. Risk is good, but not alwaysUncertainty is risk: what you do not know, you cannot mitigate against.

When framing an assessment using these five questions, the process of screening for projects is more accessible. The goal, rather than determining whether my impact is bigger than yours, is to be conscious of our decision-making process and set informed targets for the future.

Finally, the third issue: the path forward. The discussion on the future of impact investing usually flirts with the desire to make things comparable. Although standardisation is important, it cannot be the holy grail. More often than not, complex problems require a box of tools, where different solutions, addressing different stakeholders and targeting different geographies, strike against the same challenges.

That is why the value of the IMP lies in understanding more deeply how solutions are designed, rather than ranking them against each other.

To learn more about the Impact Management Project, please refer to:

🌱Kitch seals €1 million Pre-Seed Funding to build sustainable delivery-first virtual kitchens

Kitch, founded by Rui Bento and Nuno Rodrigues, two former executives of Uber in Southern Europe who launched the ridesharing and food delivery company in Portugal, wants to enable everyone in the city to have the dishes from their favourite restaurants at home while allowing these restaurants to serve the city from delivery-first kitchens. “Food delivery and takeaway are a growing part of our routines and will become even more prevalent in the context of the current pandemic. It’s easy, convenient, and there are more and more restaurants available. However, not everything is perfect. Many of our favourite restaurants still don’t make it to our dining tables. And most restaurants haven’t conceived their food to travel across town inside a backpack, on a motorbike”, begins Rui Bento, co-founder, and CEO at Kitch.

It’s exactly here that Kitch comes in. “We’re a kitchen. We are not a delivery app, and we are not a restaurant. We’re a kitchen that is distributed all over town and that houses the most exciting restaurants and the most creative chefs. A kitchen where everything is designed from scratch to order food and eat it at home. A kitchen that doesn’t want to leave a trail behind its deliveries: be it by reducing non-reusable plastic packaging, implementing technology-based solutions to reduce food waste, or improving the energy efficiency of food production and delivery”, Rui Bento concludes.

The round was led by Seedcamp and Mustard Seed MAZE, and included the participation of Groupe Keys Asset Management through a fund advised by its portfolio management company Keys REIM which will also act as a real estate investment partner for Kitch. It also attracted a number of individual investors, including João Cepeda, Founder and President at Time Out Market, Cleo Sham, COO at Spotahome, and Antonio Costanzo, Founder and CEO at EMMAC Life Sciences.

Sia Houchangnia, Partner at Seedcamp, noted “the way people eat is changing, fast, and Kitch provides the infrastructure that will allow restaurants to adapt and thrive in this new environment while at the same time building a brand that will be recognized for best-in-class operations. There is a massive opportunity here to be one of the few businesses that define the future of food which is an extremely complex market to navigate. Therefore, it is essential to have an execution driven team that knows the space inside out. With Rui and Nuno, we know we have found one. They are exceptional, execution-driven founders, and what they’ve achieved in only a few months reinforce our belief that they can expand fast and be one of the few winners in this highly competitive market.

In addition to the two co-founders, Kitch’s board of directors now includes Orson Stadler, Senior Principal at Mustard Seed MAZE, a Lisbon-based impact fund that invests across Europe. Stadler states that “We are thrilled to be partnering with entrepreneurs of the calibre of Rui and Nuno, and believe that the preference of consumers for food delivery and takeaway will continue to accelerate and compound. However, we are also aware that this trend can come at a cost to the environment, and this is why we are excited to support Kitch on their mission to provide the food that both consumers and the planet deserve through initiatives such as removing plastic, improving energy efficiency and enhancing delivery processes amongst others”.

The capital raised in this investment round will allow Kitch to start developing and scaling its operations from Lisbon, connecting the city to its favourite restaurants through meals made for delivery, offering restaurants new avenues to develop their businesses in a delicate economic environment, and taking a first step to making food delivery more sustainable.

5 tips for shifting a startup accelerator programme to online

When starting the job as acceleration programme manager for Maze X three months ago, I would have never guessed what happened next. Confronted with COVID-19, my team and I had to move the accelerator to online ASAP. Here are some of the main lessons we’ve learned throughout the preparation process. We hope they are useful for your programme, too.

#1 Become aware of your true colours

The current situation holds a great opportunity to reflect again on what your acceleration programme really stands for. What is our value proposition, and what are the values transmitted in your actions? How would the world be worse off if your programme was not there? Also, reflect on how you were doing things before corona and why you were doing them. This will help you sharpen your senses of what initiatives to offer and how to conduct them.

For us at Maze X this self-realization channelled into reinforcing our true colours: We want to contribute to environmental and social impact. We want to create an exchange and support between the members of our community. Last but not least, we want our startups to have business success.

#2 Avoid long meetings and give context

Sorry to rip off the band-aid, but you gotta dump what doesn’t fit the online format or what is not aligned with the outcomes of the reflection process you thoroughly conducted earlier (#1). Here are some quick tips on what doesn’t fit online: meetings of more than 2h (only exceptional), presentations without interactions, meetings without a clear agenda nor purpose coming out of it. Therefore, send out the agenda of the meeting in the meeting invite already. In the invite, you can also send an overview of important people that will attend and give a little bit of context why they are important for the meeting. Also, tell each group of participants (mentors, startups, etc.) what is expected to prepare for the meeting. It’s best to send this right in the invite to the meeting.

Highlight the agenda of the meeting again at the beginning of it and dedicate time slots for each part of it. After a certain time, be determined to move on to the next point with little exemptions.

#3 Create engaging events and get feedback

At Maze X, we did intensive research and attended events of other accelerators to see what works well. Events that do fit the online format are engaging, dynamic, and have a clear value-added. A recent study of accelerators shows that important events include networking, mentoring, and business skill events. Regarding the format of these events, be creative, and experiment with the following:

  • Use virtual backgrounds to create a certain vibe that fits the purpose.
  • Use breakout rooms to create intimate 1:1 meetings inside a big event.
  • Use polls to make the meeting interactive.

When trying out different formats, always ask for feedback and learn from it. For that, prepare a feedback survey before the event that you can send out at the end of it. That way, the commitment is still high, and so is the answer rate.

#4 Be selective in the tools you use and understand them deeply

The more software you use, the more people get confused. Therefore, don’t use many software tools but use them thoroughly. Become an expert on the software you use. Watch youtube tutorials and read tips and tricks about them. This will make sure that you use the tools efficiently. If things don’t work out online, the whole meeting can fall apart. Mainly, because the programme should be more dynamic now than when it was offline. Be prepared, and make sure to pre-record content that might not work in real-time. We use the following software:

  • Zoom for all group or individual meetings
  • Slack for weekly updates, work-related conversations, knowledge sharing, and community engagement
  • WhatsApp for fun, embarrassing photos and last minute or urgent announcements + off-work activities
  • Google Drive to store all Maze X-related documents and startups’ data rooms
  • Email for intros and contact with mentors and other exceptional exchange.

#5 Play it through from the receiving end

Design every interaction from the perspective of the recipient. Together with our service designer by heart, Ângela, we did this for all our activities. The user experience thinking should be applied for simple interactions like e-mails as well as more complex events. Here’s an example: “When sending this e-mail, what will the person on the other side do, wonder or need?”. Sorry to tell you the unsexy truth, but the nitty-gritty is really important when you run things online. Empathy and anticipation are essential to reduce extra loops. Do not expect everything to work perfectly, but try to streamline processes as much as possible and be on point.

Those lessons made us pumped for the start of Maze X on June 22. We’ll be continuously communicating how the programme runs and further lessons learned with this new format. If you liked this article feel free to give it a hand. Also, happy to get some comments below 🤹‍♀️

How to find the best impact startups across Europe: 3 guiding steps

By the time I joined MAZE last year, I was told I would be the inhouse scout on a mission to find the most promising startups for our impact accelerator, Maze X. As you can imagine, for a fresh graduate with elasticity equations still running through my mind, it was kind of thrilling and haunting to hear that by the end of the year I’d know more startup names’ than anyone on the team.

In the aftermath, I can now verify how important this scouting process was to get to the amazing cohort that we will have the pleasure to work within the next months. If you are facing the same scouting challenge, here are 3 steps and valuable hints to get you started:

1. Finding leads

The first question I asked myself was: where can I get the right leads for my pipeline? We’ve answered this question through a three-fold approach:

– Online sources

Google, google google: we looked for sources of quality startups, namely recognized awards, top 10s and distinguished startups from renowned newspapers, magazines and blogs.

Secondly, Crunchbase, a worldwide database with hundreds of thousands of startups and investors. Hint: The challenge to overcome here is how to use the right filters to go from thousands of startups to a manageable list of startups.

– Offline sources

At MAZE we understand the value of in-person interactions. We have met with several startups in various events: from gigantic gatherings (yes, I’m referring to Websummit), to demo days and on-going meetings with in-bound interested applicants. Insight: Our conversion ratio (applied/contacted startups) at Websummit was 35%, compared with the overall ratio of our pipeline of 18%. In general, offline events showed a much higher conversion ratio.

– Referrals from our network

Finally, we relied heavily on our partners and friends in our network to spread the message that an awesome accelerator is out there and looking for impact unicorns. Additionally, we also worked formally with key professionals in the European startup ecosystem to find us applicants. Hint: These formal partnerships were thought strategically by bringing scouts that have different expertise from our own and that cover different geographic locations.

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2. Approaching game

Let me use here the most cliché comparison of the dating game. When approaching someone, you shouldn’t declare your love and propose right way (unless you’re Ted Mosby* eheh). First, you introduce yourself. Then, you get to know the other person, their situation and talk for a while before committing. The same thing happens when approaching startups (but in a shorter time span). Before jumping into the requirements and criteria for the programme and proposing something, take the time to learn about the founder and the company, and be flexible when possible.

As for the contact mechanisms, after many trials, we concluded the best approach was a mix of LinkedIn messaging and email. The routine was LinkedIn message+ follow-up email or email+LinkedIn follow-up. Suggestion: If you are willing to pay a bit extra, try LinkedIn Pro. Without it, you’ll not be able to contact people outside your LinkedIn network.

3. Keeping track

How can you keep track of more than 1.000 startups contacted? Who replied to whom? Which ones to follow-up? Have I used LinkedIn or email?

To keep the process lean we used Affinity, an exceptional CRM tool. With Affinity, we could track the startups’ stage in funnel (new, contacted, going to apply, applied) know who contacted who, where we found them, etc. Tip: Yes, having a CRM is expensive but it was key to a successful scouting. Affinity was a great acquisition for us (no personal interests attached).

All in all

Scouting is a fancy word that usually refers to the activity of “looking for people with particular skills”. In the case of Maze X and in this article, this definition is somehow incomplete for us. The way we look at scouting is more on building a relationship with extraordinary founders that are solving the most pressing social and environmental issues. Besides finding them and inviting them for Maze X, we want to make sure that we can create value for them, for us and for the world.

Finding the right people who are creating businesses to solve the greatest social and environmental challenges of our time is a priority for our work at MAZE, and that is why scouting(slash)building relationships is so important.

* character from the acclaimed series How I Met Your Mother

Images credited to Fia Sports (

🌱Omocom raises €3.7 million to provide micro-insurances for the circular economy

We are proud to lead Omocom latest €3.7 million investment round along with Inventure.

Circular processes mean that we reuse or share existing resources instead of producing new ones. However, traditional insurance is fully adapted to a linear system and works poorly when things are not owned but rented, shared or re-used.

To solve this problem, omocom created a completely digital insurance solution that integrates directly into the sales flow on online platforms, providing microinsurance while products are rented to consumers. Omocom built a digital system for risk calculation, matching, design of insurance terms and claims settlement specifically for this new environment.

Everything we do at omocom has the sole aim of using insurance to aid a transition to a more circular economy. We want to use insurance as a tool to drive sales on these circular platforms, thereby creating the conditions for products to be used more extensively and for a longer period. We are incredibly excited by getting our new investors on board because they understand this impact focus as well as the specificities of being an insurtech start-up.” — Ola Lowden CEO, omocom.

The current economic and consumption system is unsustainable. Every year we generate the equivalent to 125 000 jumbo jets worth of electronic waste,[1] while clothing utilisation in China has decreased by 70% in the last 15 years,[2] and the average European car is parked 92% of the time.[3] By creating the right conditions for products to stay in use, omocom accelerates the shift to a circular economy while enabling new revenue stream for product owners, as the most frequent users of peer-2-peer rental platforms earn £3000 or more in over a 30 day period.[4]

The sharing economy means that more sharing equals less consumption that equals less manufacturing. By reducing the risk of transactions, omocom increases the likelihood of effectively changing consumption patterns and helps break the cycle of purchasing items for non-use,” says Orson Stadler, Senior Principal at Mustard Seed MAZE, a Lisbon-based impact fund that invests across Europe. “We are excited to partner with good friends at Inventure and Luminar Ventures who have provided outstanding support and guidance to the omocom management team to date, as well as welcoming new partners in Mundi Ventures as part of this latest round of funding.”

Inventure co-led this round that also relied on the participation from Alma Mundi Insurtech Fund and Luminar. The company will use the investment to accelerate product development and growth into new verticals and out of the Nordics.“We are delighted to continue backing Omocom in this round as they’ve really shown that they’re building a solution that’s needed in multiple verticals. Moreover, the need for their product is clearer than ever during times like these, when we expect more unemployment as well as more uncertain times in general. The fact that they keep breaking sales records mid-crisis goes to show that the need for circular processes is only going to expand, even with negative market development” says Linus Dahg, Partner at Inventure.

Omocom was founded by Emanuel Badehi KullanderOla Lowden and Tobias Mård in 2017. Together with researchers at leading universities in Sweden they developed risk calculation algorithms that enable omocom to make real-time risk assessments on digital platforms. Since the launch in October 2019 omocom are now live on 8 platforms and have over 15 000 customers.

[1] A New Circular Vision for Electronics, World Economic Forum, 2019

[2] A New Textiles Economy Redesigning Fashion’s Future, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017

[3] Growth Within, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2015

[4] How to Become a Super Lender, Fat Llama, 2018

Coronavirus and the opportunity for the digital transformation of social services

The coronavirus crisis has pushed social enterprises to seek digital alternatives to their processes and intervention models. As we leave the emergency phase, it would be wasteful not to take advantage of this momentum to accelerate digital transformation within these organizations.

The need for social services to join the digital revolution precedes the coronavirus pandemic. From where we stand, progress has been slow and polarized. The landscape of social enterprises in Portugal includes a few, usually new, organizations whose impact models are inherently digital. Yet, most social enterprises have adopted digital tools gradually, incompletely, and non-strategically. The social enterprises that had been postponing digital transition were caught off-guard by the coronavirus pandemic, with limited ability to move into remote work and service delivery.

This crisis has:

  • Reminded us of the importance of social services. The role of health and social protection services has been unquestionable. A successful recovery will also heavily rely on social services related to employment, education and justice.
  • Shone a light on how vulnerable these services are when faced with movement restrictions. Corona has exposed the gaps in the digitalization of administrative processes and is testing our assumptions about how social services are delivered.

Let us look at the digitalization of social services in two ways: back office and front office.

Back office: digitalising the work that does not face the social service beneficiaries

At its most fundamental level, back-office digitalisation includes practices such as keeping documents on the cloud, shared drives and using digital communication tools (email, videoconference, messaging chats, amongst others). The current crisis has made a clear case for digital adoption. It is key to ensure that teams operating remotely can access and share all the relevant information about the people that they are serving.

The security of such tools and interactions is a concern, especially for organizations that hold sensitive information on their beneficiaries. However, organizations that are lagging in digital adoption run the biggest risk of committing cybersecurity faux pas. When employees lack experience operating digital tools safely or there are no standards in place, chaos ensues and urgency overtakes protocols: personal email accounts are used for professional interactions, sensitive documents are shared indiscriminately through different digital channels, and so on. Considerations on data protection and cybersecurity are central to a deliberate digital adoption at the organizational level. They should not be used as an excuse not to do it.

Front office: digitalising social services for beneficiaries

Many social services are hard to transition into the virtual space because there is an inherent value in keeping them offline. We are all being reminded of the power of in-person interactions. Often, digitalization is difficult because the beneficiaries themselves are not digitally literate and cannot operate digital tools. To our great discomfort, the coronavirus crisis is putting these constraints to the test.

We have seen the social enterprises we work with react to the coronavirus crisis in three different ways:

Academia de Código, an organization that runs 14-week coding bootcamps to requalify unemployed code cadets, has seamlessly transitioned its running bootcamps online. For social enterprises that were already at the forefront of the digital revolution, the coronavirus crisis is an opportunity to step-up their game and anticipate initiatives that would have otherwise been introduced more gradually.

Projeto Família works with families whose children have been flagged as being at risk, helping them develop parental competences. They run an intensive six-week program, followed by twelve months of regular follow-ups. During the intensive phase, caseworkers of Projeto Família spend twelve hours per week interacting with each family. Under normal circumstances, 80% of those hours happen face-to-face. While the caseworkers of Projeto Família can no longer meet with the families in person (except in very critical circumstances), they have doubled the time spent checking in with the families via phone calls, making their best to prevent the escalation of conflict in the household. This crisis is pushing organizations like these to coordinate their use of digital tools, try new channels, and tweak intervention models. For these social enterprises, the current crisis will yield important learnings for service delivery beyond the end of the pandemic.

Finally, some social enterprises are struggling to keep even an adjusted version of their services running. Non-essential services for elderly people, for example, face particularly challenging circumstances. These beneficiaries are disproportionately susceptible to the coronavirus and are, on average, less able to access and use digital services. With the possibility of some restrictions staying in place (or being re-imposed) in the months to come, simply postponing the interventions becomes an insufficient response. For this segment of social enterprises, this is an opportunity to seriously rethink their intervention models.

Organizations that provide mental health support to elderly people or that coordinate physical activity groups are being forced to answer difficult questions: perhaps a component of the service can be made remote; perhaps we are underestimating the beneficiaries’ ability to learn how to use digital tools; perhaps the back-office of these organizations can be made leaner through digital tools, so that they can afford to cut intervention group size from 10 people to 5 people (doubling staff costs on intervention delivery), making sure that group meetings allow for the appropriate physical distance.

In some cases, it might not be possible to sustain the same quality of service through digital-only components. However, this crisis will force organizations to try. Some of them might be surprised by the results.

Not all social enterprises are equally equipped to take advantage of digital opportunities. Our job is to ensure that those left behind get the assistance that they need.

The digital transformation that social enterprises go through in the next months will pay double in the future. It will make them more resilient and fitter for adaptation in future crises. More importantly, it will allow them to streamline processes and save energy, empathy, and time for the human interactions that are worth fighting for.

🌱 Rnters, a marketplace for everyday items, raises €200k to tackle overconsumption

We are proud to participate in Rnters latest 200k pre-seed round following Techstars, in partnership with Semapa NEXT.

Overconsumption is one of the biggest economic issues of our time. But there are still few market solutions that allow items renting between companies and individuals in a safe and agile manner. At Mustard Seed MAZE (MSM), we believe that this pandemic represents an opportunity for tech-based solutions to succeed in the transition to a more circular economy.

Aligned with our latest partnership with Omocom, Rnters is the first marketplace in Portugal for everyday items. Following its participation in the Techstars, in partnership with Semapa NEXT, the company secured a €100k investment from the accelerator. MSM matched the investment closing the pre-seed round at €200k.

Rnters is built to rent any item you can think of. As millennials, we know that most of our shopping is done online and that this generation values access over possession. Rnters decodes this trend allowing for more sustainable consumption habits. As an impact fund, MSM is fully aligned with our mission to impact the communities in which we operate and its track record to help Rnters grow well and beyond.” — Guilherme Guerra CEO, Rnters.

The current economic and consumption system is unsustainable. Every year we generate the equivalent to 125 000 jumbo jets worth of electronic waste,[1] while clothing utilisation in China has decreased by 70% in the last 15 years,[2] and the average European car is parked 92% of the time.[3] By creating the right conditions for products to stay in use, Rnters accelerates the shift to a circular economy while enabling new revenue stream for product owners, as the most frequent users of peer-2-peer rental platforms earn £3000 or more in over a 30 day period.

The sharing economy means that more sharing equals less consumption that equals less manufacturing. By enabling the renting of everyday items, Rnters increases the likelihood of effectively changing consumption patterns and helps break the cycle of purchasing items for non-use,” says António Miguel, Partner at Mustard Seed MAZE, a Lisbon-based impact fund that invests across Europe. “We are excited to partner with good friends at Techstars, in partnership with Semapa NEXT, that have a proven track record of backing winning startups.”

[1] A New Circular Vision for Electronics, World Economic Forum, 2019

[2] A New Textiles Economy Redesigning Fashion’s Future, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017

[3] Growth Within, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2015

[4] How to Become a Super Lender, Fat Llama, 2018

5 tips for fostering creative thinking, starting tomorrow

Like many others, I’ve used some time during this lock-down to learn something new. Unlike everyone on Instagram, sourdough and I couldn’t meet halfway, so I’ve decided to give it a shot on something else — Creativity.

I’ve been exploring the Creativity topic for some time now — how to stretch and feed my imagination, and how to find space (and time) for new things to come up. Some authors tell us it’s a skill that flourishes when practiced. And further studies show that even (and especially) procrastinators can be true originals (check Adam Grant’s TED talk for more).

But more recently, I’ve been interested in how to foster that creativity on others. Is there a secret formula for bringing creativity into the problem-solving process within teams? What is the right way to lead your team to more creative outcomes?

During the last few weeks, I’ve been attending the Leading for Creativity course from IDEO U looking for answers and thought about sharing some of the tips that I’ve found useful when approaching new challenges. It’s not rocket science — it never is, is it? But it is actionable, and we have seen it working at MAZE. And the best thing is you can start doing it tomorrow.

(Disclaimer: I’m sparing you the details about my love story for IDEO. You may think it is, but this is not a sponsored post. And if tips had a trademark, this text should be covered in it.)

First things first.

1. Are you sure your teams are working on a relevant problem?

I don’t know about you, but for me, there is nothing more frustrating than working on something that is not relevant. Time and energy are wasted. Motivation drops. Ideas are parked forever.

When this happens — and more often than we would want to, it is more likely that the next time you call creativity, it will be harder to have your teams engaged.

Make sure that whatever challenge your team is working on, it is aligned with your company’s purpose and vision and why it exists in the first place. When deciding which challenges to attack first, here is a quick check-list that you may want to use:

  1. What is the purpose (aspirational and why your company exists besides making money) and the vision (the plan of how you get to your ambitions) of your company
  2. Check on what is stopping you from getting to your vision
  3. Chose one of the topics to address

Now that you have a challenge that is strategic and will help your company to go further, it’s time to frame a question.

2. Help your team get to the right question it needs to answer

We know that there are people more creative than others. Natural talents that can gracefully think of 100 different ways to sell ice-creams in winter.

What we also know is that there are questions that are easier to generate more creative ideas than others. This is one of my biggest challenges — how to get to the best How might we…? question. And at the same time, it’s so rewarding when you get it right.

Here are some simple rules to follow and examples of how to use them:

  • Don’t put a solution into the question
    Not great:
     How might we launch a campaign and app that makes having healthy habits cool for teens?
    Better: How might we inspire teens around the topic of healthy eating?
  • Your question should be inspiring
    Not great: 
    How might we reach new audiences?
    Better: How might we communicate our offer in a way that is easy to tweet and repeat?
  • Include who are you designing for
    Not great:
     How might we design the ultimate long-haul air travel experience?
    Better: How might we make airline travel more convenient for single parents traveling alone with their children?
  • Draw insights from inside your organization. What is your unfair advantage?
    Not great:
     How might we make a new premium soup product?
    Better: How might we develop new products that highlight the well-being aspects of soup?

3. Practice a curious mindset

Now that your team is working on solving the right challenge, it is time to challenge them. Bringing your curiosity to the process will make them go further.

Think about what questions may help unlock their creative potential or think from a different perspective.

Small yet generative questions are a good bet, like What’s in it for the consumer? What if it is not good enough? Why does it matter? What does this make possible? What else?

It isn’t enough merely to be open to ideas from others. Engaging the collective brainpower of the people you work with is an active, ongoing process. — Ed Catmul, President of Pixar Animation (Creativity Inc.)

4. Be bold when setting-up a team

These techniques can be applied to any type of organization. But an excellent way to bring more creative thinking is by shaking things up. A visionary leader may try to bring someone to the team with a different perspective and disrupt conventions.

Chris Flink (partner from IDEO) shares that every year they bring a wild card intern. Some years ago they hired a magician — the Magintern. He brought the theatrical, the surprise, and delight touch sometimes missed when designing a new service.

At MAZE we have Gonçalo, remembering us everyday of how it is to live outside the box.

What about you? What is the profile that you probably need to disrupt your status-quo thinking?

5. Create rituals that feed a Culture of Creativity

Lastly, the rituals — something that you can do in parallel with your approach to new challenges. Rituals help nudge the culture of your team and your organization towards beliefs and behaviors that support creative work.

Have a look at these examples of beliefs and behaviors that are mostly seen in creative teams:

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To create a ritual that is adapted to your reality:

  1. Identify gaps between these beliefs and behaviors and your culture
  2. Put it into a question — how might we design a ritual that…?
  3. Brainstorm ideas chose one and give it a try

Last week we did a quick experiment with a new ritual at MAZE:

  1. Our gap: “Permission to fail”. Although we are pushed to do it, individually, we are still very risk-averse
  2. Question: How might we design a ritual that encourages a culture of acceptance towards failure?
  3. From 10 different ideas, we chose one to test — a F*-up lunch where people shared one of their biggest failures and why was that important for them (the great lessons from this would give another post). We did it during our weekly virtual lunch. Bonus: we are now using that time to bring other topics to the table and feel closer to each other.

Rituals are unique to your tribe. Find where you should be working on — and don’t let this pandemic fool you. Virtual connection is better than no connection at all.

Creative thinking has never been more critical. Take COVID Innovations for example, and check the great innovations that have been coming out every day in response to the current situation.

Whatever challenge you may have in hands — being it building a new product, increasing the efficiency of your company, improving an internal process, or finding new answers for today’s challenges — don’t forget to ask yourself: What else could creativity get us to do?

Some extra good reads on Framing a good challengeAsking the right questionsRituals, and Creative cultures.

🌱Platypus prepares companies for the future of work

We are proud to lead Platypus latest $2.5 million investment round along with Inventure and Vækstfonden.

With the global pandemic sweeping across the planet, remote work went global overnight. Now more than ever, businesses are challenged to address new needs and expectations from their employees. Issues such as limited management support, reduced communication flow and lack of social belonging can have a major impact on the company culture and the way employees experience work outside the office.

While most solutions in the HR Tech space focus on individual performance and engagement scores to cope with this problem, Platypus measures, analyses and tracks the alignment of an individual’s values with the culture and values of an organisation. The solution helps transform company culture from a static, top-down mission statement into adaptable, measurable data of what employees actually value in a company. Platypus also assesses person-to-organisation alignment as culture develops over time in order to identify the areas that need further attention — minimizing the risk of losing employees.

“The average cost of staff turnover is $50k per employee, and as high as 200% of the base salary for highly-skilled roles. This presents a major problem for many companies in today’s market, especially as they are transitioning to more flextime and remote work options,” explains Platypus’s CEO Nico Blier-Silvestri, who brings over 15 years of experience managing HR functions in successful companies like Revolut, Unity Technologies, Trustpilot and Peakon. “The future of work, whether remote or not, is all about finding smart ways to cope with retention issues. Close to 90% of the early-leavers⁠ — that is, people who leave their employer within the first 18 months on the job — do so because of the cultural misalignment, and we know for a fact that a technology like Platypus can be game-changing for businesses for years to come.”

MSM welcomes the opportunity to partner with Platypus, along with Inventure, a Nordic technology fund backing early-stage entrepreneurs based in Finland and Sweden, and Vækstfonden, the Danish State’s investment fund. MSM believes Platypus reframes the way businesses measure and leverage organisational alignment to maximise employee satisfaction and retention. We spend a significant part of our lives at work, reinforcing the need for a strong sense of engagement, satisfaction and performance within our jobs. Platypus enables teams and individuals to achieve those outcomes, combating symptoms of cultural misalignment such as depression and anxiety. MSM team is excited to work with Nico, Daniel, Neva and Lousie, a team comes with a solid industry background in HR, giving them a clear advantage and differentiated approach in this vertical.

Platypus was founded in February 2019 by Nico Blier-Silvestri and Daniel Bowen. Within 10 months of its launch, the company is already working with multiple customers across several markets, including Denmark, Latvia, Singapore, Sweden, the UK and the US, to establish an optimal person-organisation alignment, and thus minimise their retention costs.

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Daniel Bowen and Nico Blier-Silvestri sitting at Platypus office in Copenhagen. © Platypus, 2020

Interview with Bernardo from MyPolis

Can you tell us who is Bernardo and a little bit about your background?

I am a social entrepreneur, focused on bringing millennials closer to politics and decision-making process, and I created MyPolis to make their voices heard. I started it one and a half years ago to foster community engagement and youth participation.

MyPolis is working in four Portuguese municipalities so far. At Maze X, we are exploring a corporate angle to leverage the internal resources that corporates have to create external impact.

Previously, I worked as a consultant at Deloitte digital, where I had an important role in projects on blockchain, IoT, apps development, etc. It was fun, and I learned a lot. I left the company to focus on MyPolis and embark on this journey of finding ways to engage millennials politically. I had the opportunity, and I had the guts.

Before that, I studied economics at Nova SBE. I was part of the Students Union and part of a team of 70 fascinating people.

I am 26 now. I had a lot of exciting opportunities already. Right now, I’m taking part in this adventure of trying to set up a startup with a young team. We still have a lot to learn. I believe that my path has led me to these moments where the stakes are high, and I think that the best is yet to come.

Pedro Cerejo, CTO, and Bernardo Gonçalves, CEO of MyPolis at the Demo Day of Maze X at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

What is MyPolis, and where did the name come from?

MyPolis is a platform to connect politicians and citizens. It’s a place where citizens can have a say on the future of their cities. It’s a place for participation and fresh ideas.

How did you come up with the idea?

We can call it the Tinder for ideas. I would love to build a solution that is as good as Tinder is, as far as usability is concerned. We’re still not there. We have a lot of work to do. But I like the idea of calling it a Tinder for ideas.

We came up with a solution when we were in the Students Union. I was the president, and I was trying to engage students in activities, but I was missing some information on what they wanted. It was only later, while I was a consultant for digital projects, that the solution started to get some shape. It was the combination of both backgrounds that made me approach technology as a tool to solve social issues.

Why does MyPolis matter?

MyPolis matters a lot because I don’t believe in a model where you are summoned to cast your votes every four years, and then there is a void of feedback from citizens in between. Both politicians and citizens are in need, especially the young citizens, of a better way to perform social listening, to make sure their voices are heard, and to reach out to the decision-makers. I believe it is a problem because some of the sources of this problem are an unsymmetrical way of communication between politicians and citizens. It is difficult for citizens to participate positively, and it is annoying to participate in traditional platforms like a municipal assembly. The channels are there. They are just too old, too traditional, and not handy.

How do you see the cities in the future?

I do not believe in a purely representative democracy model, which is what we have today. I believe in a mix between participatory and representative democracy. In our current model, 99% of what is done in a city is decided by 5 to 6 people. I believe that the citizens know their challenges and those of their fellow citizens better than the government officials that sit in an office miles away. I believe in cities that base decision-making on data that is collected from citizens. Technology is a valuable tool to approach different targets, collect their concerns and present them in a seamless way to decision-makers. That’s where MyPolis wants to position itself: like an accelerator of information between the citizens and politicians.

Why did you apply to Maze X?

I already knew the team, and I know that they could help us with a lot of challenges. Additionally, Maze X was an opportunity to test a corporate approach to our solution, which is what we are now doing with PLMJ.

Almost every company that I know is not having a positive impact on the communities where their offices are. Most times, corporates have a budget for corporate social responsibility and distribute it between associations, institutions, etc. Employees spend most of their days in the geographical area where they work. Hence, there is an excellent opportunity to engage employees in a decentralized way through the companies they work for in impactful initiatives. And that’s what we are trying to do together.

PLMJ has supported us from the beginning and showed great interest in this idea of fostering community engagement internally, and then trying to get some external reach as well. The company has the right mindset, and it was a really good fit.

From left to right: Bernardo Gonçalves (MyPolis), André Figueiredo (PLMJ), Maria Pignatelli (MyPolis) at the launch event of Maze X at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

What were the three challenges you wanted to tackle throughout Maze X?

First, design the corporate approach to our solution. That is undoubtedly the main challenge. Second, make the necessary tweaks, and finally, end up with an impactful user experience, which is something we have not achieved so far.

Which startup surprised you the most in the last year?

We have been working at Casa do Impacto, and a Startup that I already knew and that surprised me a lot was Code Academy. They have it all: a crazy, talented and kind team, two or three successful business models and a material impact in society. Those three things that they have is what I aim for.

I would be pleased if in five years I could be at their level. I was already really passionate about their products, and getting to know them in real life and working alongside them at Casa do Impacto has been a great surprise.

Where do you find wisdom?

In books. I am reading a lot of books right now. I’m finishing “Dom Quixote” which I have been reading for like a year (I’m really ashamed to admit it). I am reading “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize in Economics and one of the fathers of behavioural economics.
I am reading “Learn to code now”. I don’t want to become a coder, but I want to learn more about what it takes, so I’m reading that one, and it has been fun.

The interview took place on the 10th of July at Casa do Impacto. The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Maze X was conceived and initiated by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the Edmond de Rothschild Foundations and MAZE, with the law firm PLMJ and BNP Paribas joining as corporate members, Hospital da Luz Learning Health, Casa do Impacto as partners.

Maze X startup accelerator – Week 11

On week 11, the founders renewed their hope on impact entrepreneurship with a breakfast with the fearless impact entrepreneur Domingos Guimarães and sat down for a second round of meetings with investors. Adding on to that, the founders benefited from 1-to-1 meetings with Google Adwords expert Sebastian Bartling.

Breakfast with Domingos Guimarães

Domingos Guimarães founded <Academia de Código_> when Portugal was going through a huge financial crisis and unemployment rates were alarmingly high. Since then, they retrained +500 unemployed people by transforming them into full-stack developers in only 14 weeks. Today, <Academia de Código_> is present in Lisboa, Porto, Fundão and Açores. On week 11, Domingos joined us to speak about the two things you need to build a successful business: money and people.

As an impact entrepreneur himself, Domingos believes that in the impact ecosystem there are more fundraising options than in regular entrepreneurship. That is why impact entrepreneurship is the biggest opportunity of our time. His advice to start? Create a good story around the problem you are trying to solve. Most people call it a vision. It needs to be ambitious. Ensure that all of your allies live and breath that story.

If the story is good, you will get attention from the media, investors and talented people. So what’s next?

On raising money

Domingos believes an entrepreneur needs to be focused on monetizing the business from day one. Another valuable recommendation is not to give equity away unless:

  • It is smart money, which means, money coming from people that have valuable knowledge about your business/market or that holds valuable leads;
  • Find good investors that understand the need for retaining ~25% equity to redistribute among employees since, typically, startups are not immediately able to pay competitive salaries.

On talent

You cannot build extraordinary things with people that are not extraordinary. When you are trying to climb the Everest, you need people that can take you to the moon.

  • Invest 20% of your time having lunches with new and interesting people. That is how you build a network and access valuable talent;
  • You are using equity to retain top talent. Use equity as a carrot to keep the team motivated.

On remaining relevant

  • Learn something new every day for the rest of your life
  • You are what your environment is. Surround yourself with talented people. That’s how you will keep on growing.

Meeting investors (part 2)

Starting a relationship with an investor is a long process. On a former post, we used the metaphor on how it almost feels like going on a date. On your first meeting, you sit down, bring your best self, share some data points and answer some questions, some deep, some superficial, all relevant for what lies ahead. That’s what happened two weeks ago when the Maze X team invited investors from our network for one-hour meetings with the founders. The goal was to collect valuable feedback and open new leads, commercial or investment. On week 11, some founders sat down for a second-round meeting with investors. A second date is always a good indicator for something long-lasting.

Google Adwords with Sebastian Bartling

Google Adwords is not straightforward. Sebastian Bartling worked for Google in Dublin for almost three years advising companies on the best campaigns to invest in Google Adwords. Today, Sebastian is a Managing Director of Philoneos, a Partner in Innovation & Marketing for family businesses. On week 11 of Maze X, the founders benefited from 1-to-1 clinics with Sebastian to get valuable tips on how to use Google Adwords to help world-wide-surfers like us to find them.

When you are running a small business, marketing efforts can feel overwhelming. And often, we see founders investing their money on AdWords with insignificant results. “Most startups begin by trial and error and become frustrated very soon when the budget is limited and results take time. AdWords requires patience as well as a strategic approach and isn’t optimized for beginners. Invest time to understand the system and outline a plan. As with any strategy, it will pay off eventually.” said Sebastian.

His advice to startups? Start by simply asking yourself questions:

  • Who is my customer?
  • What problem am I solving for them?
  • What other solutions are available? How are they currently looking for and finding solutions?
  • Are they even searching for what I am offering?
  • What do I want them to do?

Only one week away before acceleration ends. Throughout the summer break, we will be preparing the international roadshow. Can you guess where we are taking the Maze X founders? Stay tuned.

Featured photo: Breakfast with Domingos Guimarães on week 11 of the first cohort of Maze X.

Maze X was conceived and initiated by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the Edmond de Rothschild Foundations and MAZE, with the law firm PLMJ joining as a founding corporate member and BNP Paribas, Hospital da Luz Learning Health, Casa do Impacto as partners.

Maze X startup accelerator – Week 9

A friend of mine recently told me that humans are moved by three things: love, loss and desire. In life, there is nothing more fulfilling than connecting to another living being. Connection happens when (1) we are able to understand and facilitate what drives the other person and (2) we are willing to be vulnerable and share that ourselves.

On week 9 of Maze X, we learned from Miguel Arroja from Salesforce, that selling is not something you do at or against someone but something you do for and with someone. Then, the founders participated in the eXtra mile to accelerate the corporate pilot and meet investors, where they received valuable feedback and opened new leads.

Sales workshop with Miguel Arroja (Senior Account Executive at Salesforce)

‘Products and services are created to make your life easier or to make the pain go away’. This is how Miguel Arroja opened his session about sales. The founders and the Maze X team were focused. By minute 2:32, he knew everybody’s name. He walked from one side to the other, and everyone was hooked. We live in times of hyper-connectivity, too many stimuli so being able to get the attention of an audience has never been more challenging. And he was nailing it. Why? Because he knew precisely what the audience needed: valuable tips on how to hack selling. Pure gold for entrepreneurs. Selling is hard and for the most part and often it is not an enjoyable process. But as a startup, you don’t really have a choice. So if there are any shortcuts, the founders wanted to know them. And now so can you.

Miguel Arroja, senior account executive at Salesforce, sharing valuable tips on how to hack selling with the founders at Maze X.

First, we busted two myths about selling:

  • Nobody feels comfortable in selling (at least in the beginning)
  • Selling is not something you do at or against someone. It is something you do for and with someone.

As soon as you start thinking of selling as a skill and not as a talent, the sooner you can improve. Are you with me? Ok, we also learned that the fact that you feel uncomfortable is because (1) you believe what you are offering lacks value or (2) you are biting more than you can chew. If (1) improve your product. If (2) prepare for the meeting on a 3 min prep/1 min presentation ratio.

Now, here are two sales hacking tips:

  • Gemba walk spend time observing your customer, understand their pain points, understand their culture, how they are like;
  • Arrive early to meetings and pay attention to what workers are talking about on their cigarette break.

Second, we learned that selling is a team sport. Everyone in the company should be able to sell. In a sales meeting, you must ensure three profiles:

  • The watcher: the person that checks tone, body language, levels of excitement
  • The devil’s advocate: the person that puts themselves in the shoes of the customer
  • The principle: timekeeper, agenda keeper that is focused on the outcomes we want to take from the meeting

Are you bootstrapped? Great, you are just another entrepreneur. You should be able to wear the three hats.

Third and last, aim for the virtuous cycle: happy employees make happy customers; happy customers mean fewer complaints; fewer complaints generate more profit; more profit implies better results; better results allow for happier employees. See where this is going? Richard Branson is the wizard of the virtuous cycle. If you want to be a wizard too, you need to ensure organisational alignment and seamless customer experience.

Wait, but what does organisational alignment even mean?

  1. Shared company vision
    • Great leadership is about knowing what is non-negotiable
    • People should speak with one voice
  2. Agree to disagree but then agree to disagree and commit
  3. Exceptional stakeholder engagement (board, investors, partners, regulatory entities, etc.)

And the seamless customer experience?

It means that there is no tension point in the customer journey from the moment he becomes aware of your product/service until he recommends it to a friend. How?

  • Collect data. Data is the new oil because it allows you to understand where things are going wrong and where to improve;
  • Define an ideal customer profile, the people you would pay a fortune to acquire;
  • Define a minimum valuable customer, the person you can use to ask questions and practise your approach.

That’s all for selling, peeps. And remember, ‘face time is money time’.

Week 9 was also the moment for the eXtra mile, a two-day event where the startups focused on a sprint to:

  • Accelerate the design of the corporate pilot
  • Meet investors for feedback and open new leads (commercial or investment)

Accelerating the corporate pilot with PLMJ and My Polis

My Polis took the lead on this one and led a two-day focus group with the PLMJ teams. There were post-its, lots of coffee and no filters. The goal: unveil valuable insights about the PLMJ, its identity, vision and pain points in an open, fun and safe environment. What has My Polis learned?

My Polis met PLMJ for a focus group at Maze X the startup accelerator
PLMJ lawyers at Maze X eXtra Mile, where they met My Polis for a focus group.

PLMJ is a mix of superheroes. PLMJ is like ant-man because it can be small and enormous depending on the situation. PLMJ is also superwoman for its relentless efforts to find creative ways to remain relevant and shine on the big league (have you checked their new brand?). PLMJ is also Spiderman for it understands the fragility of the territory it navigates at all times.

My Polis learned that there is a strong will to make impact and local participation something concrete. PLMJ lawyers want to go beyond pro bono and volunteering initiatives. They want to be involved and participate in the local communities they impact That is the opportunity My Polis is tapping into at Maze X.

Investors’ day

The other founders were also busy. The Maze X team invited investors from our network for one-hour meetings with the founders. The goal was to collect valuable feedback and open new leads, commercial or investment. So, what happened?

  • RNTERS had a fruitful meeting with Henry Wigan, co-founder of Mustard Seed VC impact fund;
  • Trigger Systems met with Rui Madeira, non-executive director at MAZE who works in a private equity fund in Angola with significant investments in agriculture. It opened the door for new commercial leads;
  • TUKI met with Fundo Bem Comum and is currently analysing of co-investment with Portugal Inovação Social;
  • Urban Food Box met with Inno Energy, a current investor of Trigger System, to understand which KPIs to monitor and where to source funding at this stage.

You see, connection is the fabric of life. It does not matter if it is the cute person at the bar who will be your next partner-for-life, the investor you met randomly on a demo day or a brief encounter with a kick-ass salesperson. The message remains the same: be present, listen and make something better with the love, loss and desire that lives inside each and every single one of us.

Maze X was conceived and initiated by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the Edmond de Rothschild Foundations and MAZE, with the law firm PLMJ joining as a founding corporate member and BNP Paribas, Hospital da Luz Learning Health, Casa do Impacto as partners.

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