02/01/2015 06:57 GMT | Updated 01/03/2015 05:59 GMT

Why I Love Volunteering in Startups

Volunteering is a great thing.

In search of a little more meaning and reconnecting with with my country boy, Devon roots, I volunteered for Trees for Cities in London, for a time.

Planting trees is a therapeutic process in its own right, but the best thing is watching what you planted, grow, take shape and become a part of the landscape.

I'd been inspired to volunteer by people like Tony Robbins, with his ethos of service and 'what can I give back?'

Though I met some great folks at Trees for Cities, planted numbers of trees in deprived areas of London, it didn't feel like my efforts were making all that much of a difference.

Then I started doing another form of volunteering, by accident.

It felt great. Even better in fact.

It was volunteering in friends' startups

By this time I'd learnt a bit on the entrepreneurial journey and had been improving my digital strategy skills slavishly, under the generous guidance of a market-leading mentor.

I've now done volunteered like this for over a year, giving up to half a day a week of time.

Watering tech acorns

Helping friends with their technology startups felt like I was helping grow something I cared about, all the while making a potentially bigger difference.

My input might help scale a great new idea or product.

Given the power law nature of how the Internet works, these startups could grow into things far bigger than any tree - or even forest of trees - I could plant.

This volunteering might not be as earthy as wholesome as grabbing a shovel, digging a deep hole and planting a real tree.

But, it's a more interesting in my mind and adds value to people and relationships you care about. Whilst I'll never be the finished article and don't know it all, those I help out seem to appreciate the time and value add.

This volunteering is fun and makes me feel good.

I hope one, or more, of these startups go huge too.

How to pick startups to volunteer in though?

I got asked this the other day.

Fair question.

There are tonnes of startups needing help out there, all wanting value add from a range of directions, especially if it's free. You just need to have even a small network in a major Western city tech scene to find loads of opportunities.

To want to help, I just need to answer these questions positively.

Do I respect and care about this person or these people?

Simply put, are we on the same page in terms of ambitions, morals and world view.

I really care about the folks I volunteer for and I'd love to see them and their startups succeed. For some reason, most of them tend to have been doing startups and tech businesses for a while.

Do I care about their product?

Another easy one to figure out. Would I use it? Will it change a market? Does it add value to society? Do I almost wish I'd had the idea?

Even if you like someone, it's difficult to give your time and quality attention, if you don't get excited about what they're hacking.

I love their products, or at the least what their product could become.

Does the business have potential for scale?

Again, easy to see what I'm trying to figure out here.

Could the product be so good and value adding, that it changes the way we do things and in doing so becomes ubiquitous? Are they early? Is the market large?

It's easier to get excited about giving your valuable time, when what you're working on has great potential.

I'm trying to help water tech acorns in the hope seeing them grow into mighty digital oaks.

You might end up volunteering for difference reasons, but for me, this simple recipe is enough to want to help. Be mindful of people respecting your time and not taking advantage of it though.

I hope my volunteering is helping me think more like an investor more too.

Is it pure altruism?


IMHO there is no such thing as pure altruism. Or at least, I'm not sure humans are capable of it.

Even if this volunteering just makes you feel warm inside and you get nothing more from it, the positive feelings you take away mean you haven't done it for nothing.

There is something in the trade for you. You feel better because of it.

I enjoy this volunteering for these benefits alone, but I'm seeing others come from it too. In his book, 'Give and Take', Adam M Grant explains that smart giving, without becoming a doormat, is integral to success. He's right.

This giving helps me build better, deeper relationships with the friends and founders I help. I'm understanding lots more about their products and markets. I'm also learning lots from them as people and operators. (I'll write a blog about some of these startups and founders another time).

I'm pretty curious and restless, but I think learning is perhaps the most rewarding, stimulating thing in life.

That's why startup volunteering works for me.

I feel like I'm giving back, whilst learning new things, in a new forum, with great people.

What's not to like?

Here's to more startup volunteering in 2015.