A month from now, 70 people in the London tech industry will be (hopefully) on the last leg of a 320km (200 miles) cycle ride from Paris to London. What made these ‘geeks’ get off their laptop and get on their bikes? A combination of wanting to do good and yearning to be part of a strong startup community in London. Since we started Techbikers in 2012, 120 techies cycled from Paris to London and we’ve raised over 100,000 pounds for Room to Read, creating 3 schools, 4 libraries and 3,000 scholarships for girls in India and Nepal.
“Life is a journey of realization, which often ends in that place where dreams never begin.” ― Qosmic Qadence
The story of Techbikers starts 4 years ago. I was traveling in India with my wife when the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted, wreaking havoc in air travel worldwide. Our flights were cancelled 3 times in a row, and we had to extend the trip by a week to get a confirmed seat in a flight home. After spending a few days in Delhi in a relatively expesive hotel, we decided to change the scenery and head up north to Daramsalla, home to the Dalai Lama in exile.
I read a lot, but pretty much focused on two types of books: startup and happiness related books (I find both topics fascinating). Robyn, my wife and a Phd in International Political Economy, was only reading econ and politics books (as you would during your Phd). To prepare for the trip, we decided to steer away from our regular taste, and pick books from the ‘doing good’ shelf. She picked “The End of Poverty” and I picked up “Leaving Microsoft to change the World”, by John Wood. I was cheating a little, because I figured with that title, there must be some tech in the book. Little did I know that the book was the story of how Room to Read almost accidentally started by a tech guy, and that is was going to touch a nerve and be the inspiration for starting Techbikers.
Fast forward to 2012, and my role at work changed from managing strategic partnerships at Google, to being the person in charge of launching and running Campus London, Google’s first physical hub for startups, based in East London, near “Silicon Roundabout”. Before being offered the role, I’ve spent a lot of time meeting friends in startups, VC, accelerators, trying to understand what the biggest challenges are in their perspective. This was important research that led to me writing my first 100 day plan. Looking back, a lot of what we’ve done at Campus in the 2.5 years that followed, was in that original plan. But one question popped on my mind: how can I truly build a tight community, if people are organized in small startups with seemingly nothing to connect them apart from the physical space they’re at?
Cheesy as it sounds, the answer came to me in the form of a dream (a very common phenomenon when you spend a lot of time thinking about something). I realized that the answer to the question laid in giving people a bigger purpose than just their own startup. If I could motivate the founders and community members to channel all of their passion and perseverance into doing something for the good of society — we will have a win-win. What I saw in that dream, was a big bike ride, and the idea of Room to Read was planted in my head since that trip to India in 2010. but there was only one problem — I didn’t own a bike and I had no idea how to organize the logistics for an adventure like this.
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” ― Lao Tzu
I did two things to get started. I posted a tweet, with a link to a Google form for people to register their interest:
About 50 people signed up. The next thing I did was to talk about the idea for the ride — with as many people as possible. I even mentioned it to Ingrid Lunden when I was interviewed by Techcrunch before the launch of Campus:
“This is what I do for fun,” Vidra said. “You can’t fake passion.” (And, I should add, his enthusiasm is infectious. He even got me to agree, in theory, to the idea of helping out with and going on a bike ride from London to Paris. Startups on wheels for a good cause being the basic idea.)
I got people interested, but I still didn’t know how to pull it off. As Paolo Coelho famously wrote in the Alchemist: “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it”. In a moment of serendipity (one of many during my experience with Techbikers to this day), an interesting email landed in my inbox. It was from Jonathan Friend, an accountant turned cycling guide, telling me that someone (who I never met) told him I’m looking for a company to organize the logistics of a ride from Paris to London. He’s only done London to Paris, but he was willing to give it a shot. The ride was on.
“I get by with a little help from my friends.” ― John Lennon
At that point, work was crazy busy. Campus consumed all my waking hours, and that included evenings and weekends. I needed help — and fast. At that point, I was introduced to Gerry Newton, a founder of Cyclr, a startup that was based at TechHub on the 2nd floor of Campus. Gerry was in the process of launching his website, but he was immediately taken by the idea of having a tech ride for charity and we joined forces. Gerry’s tech team (designer and developer) could help with the logo, website and social media, and I was to take care of sponsors, riders and getting the word out. Still, it was too much work for 2 people. So I reached out to Benjamin Southworth, then deputy CEO of Techcity (and a former co-founder of 3beards), I knew Ben was into cycling and was hoping his passion and position at Tech City will us amplify the message and raise awareness to our ride and fundraisig campaign.
Lots of ‘universe conspiracies’ kept happening. In a weekend event at the W Hotel, Abraham Choi, founder of Simple Merchant, who had recently moved from the US, overheard us talking about the ride and asked how he could get involved. Abe ended up being an instrumental core member of the Techbikers team, and we would have probably never met. A master of operations, Abe can break big projects into small chunks and just get things done, a key skill in an event like this.
In a Silicon Drinkabout event at Campus, I chatted with Andy Young (then the CEO of Groupspaces, now at Stripe). Andy created a group for us to manage the communications and continued to be a Techbikers champion for 3 years. Michael Willmott, the founder of Knodium, took over the website and made it great, Barry Furby from synthesio.com heads up our practice rides, James Mayes, who heads up sponsorships and the list is too long to continue, but you know who you are and how special you are to me.
Which brings me to Mark Jennings — Mark did participated in the first ride where we experienced 27 mm of rain on the third day in West Sussex. The conditions were too dangerous to proceed with a group of 50 riders with mixed ability, and we had to make a tough call to take a train and skip a risky part of the ride (about 10 miles) but still finish strong in London. In a moment taken from a movie scene, the group was almost split in the decision to keep going despite the rain or complete it together as a group. Abe and Mark confronted each other and Abe said ‘we started this together and we will finish it together’. Mark has been the biggest Techbikers evangelist ever since. He’s been managing the communications for the last two years and has joined the board of Room to Read in London. He’s now an avid cyclist doing 120 miles in a day of riding in the mountains and he keeps the ball rolling. Mark is all heart and Techbikers wouldn’t be the same without him.
“In this bright future you can’t forget your past.” ― Bob Marley
It’s getting to be a pretty long post, so I’ll stop here, but not before I plead you to support us on our third year. We’re looking to raise 50,000 pounds to give kids access to education in the places where they need it most. With your help, and the Universe’s, we’ll get there. Please consider to sponsor a rider here: bit.ly/techbikers2014
In the next post I’ll share 10 things that made Techbikers special. If you want an idea of what it’s like to be a Techbiker, take a moment to watch (and share) this video (filmed by Techbiker Alex Blogg)