"2016 was an incredible year for Balloon. Our involvement in the International Citizen Service programme has continued to grow, our London office has moved and grown, and we’ve led pioneering new projects with a major corporate organisation."
Since they founded Balloon Ventures in 2012, Josh Bicknell (CEO) and Doug Cochrane (COO) have grown the organisation significantly, both in terms of scale and, vitally, impact. With the exciting news that Balloon had been selected as a winner of the IDEO Amplify Youth Empowerment Challenge, this blog post, in which Josh and Doug reflect on the successes and challenges of 2016 and look ahead to 2017, fell a little by the wayside. Now that we’re two months into the year, it seems more pertinent than ever to share what’s on the horizon with the whole Balloon family.
2016 was an incredible year for Balloon. Our involvement in the International Citizen Service programme has continued to grow, our London office has moved and grown, and we’ve led pioneering new projects with a major corporate organisation. “Probably my main highlight came in December,” Josh told us, “when I visited our staff workshop in Kenya. At the start of the year, we had 15 staff, and now we have 31 – many of whom I had never met. It was exciting to put faces to names and see the energy and commitment of all of our staff and their belief in the mission of Balloon”.
“I completely agree with Josh about the team. We’ve managed to surround ourselves with a group of incredibly diligent, funny and clever people who really care about what we’re doing together.” Doug, who works closely with the in-country teams on the delivery of all Balloon’s work, was quick to add to Josh’s comments.
Josh continued, “Many organisations talk about being youth-led, but for Balloon that’s a reality. Nearly 94% of our staff are under 35, and I’m proud to have helped build a group of young people achieving exceptional things.”
One of the areas where Balloon has put a great deal of focus throughout 2016 is in its work on insight and impact. “My other highlight,” said Doug, “has been watching our Insight & Impact function grow and begin capturing more robust and reliable data on programme outcomes. Development work is really hard and doesn’t always yield the results you hope for. To understand what impact happens on Balloon programmes, we have a responsibility to invest in brilliant tools and processes for measurement. We've always been committed to honesty and openness when it comes to impact, and seeing this ambition begin to mature and produce results we can count on is very exciting.”
For Josh, working with CitiGroup, on our Volunteer Africa programme was a real stand-out moment in 2016. “At Balloon our aim is to support entrepreneurs for their entire business journey from very small, to very big. The programme with CitiGroup was our first Stage 2 programme for the fastest growing micro entrepreneurs in Nakuru, Kenya. 12 employees from the company working in Corporate and Investment Banking worked with 8 entrepreneurs to take their businesses to the next level. The impact was incredible and it was very exciting to see how this type of intensive support can rapidly accelerate the growth of small businesses.”
2016 was a year of real highs for Balloon Ventures, but Josh and Doug were keen also to talk about one challenging moment from the year. “We decided to pause the Fellowship this year,” said Josh. “This was a bit sad as it was the programme that we launched Balloon with. But it had stagnated slightly and we decided to focus our energies elsewhere.” Doug added, “Yes, pausing the Fellowship was hard, but I also think it was the right decision made for good reason.”
Making challenging decisions, pausing or retiring programmes or products, is obviously a big part of the entrepreneurial experience that Balloon teaches to micro business owners in the developing world. Since they founded Balloon, neither Doug nor Josh have stopped trying to learn new things from their experience. For Doug, the biggest thing he has learned is the importance of putting yourself in “challenging or uncertain situations” and “working hard to fulfil your obligations, letting each experience inform the next step. If we hadn’t taken those early risks, none of the other stuff would matter.” For Josh, it’s all about the people: “Balloon is really the only job I’ve ever had, so it’s practically everything I know about business. But if I had to pick out one thing, it’s probably the realisation that a business is only as good as the people working in it. As the leader of a business, the best thing you can do is to make sure you hire fantastic people and to set a clear vision so that everyone knows exactly what to do.”
"We’re introducing psychometric testing into our entrepreneur recruitment in a partnership with UCL and META. We are also launching an online curriculum – Balloon Online – that will be used by volunteers working with startup entrepreneurs in Kenya."
Looking forward to 2017, Josh and Doug are excited about a number of developments which are in the pipeline. As well as the brand-new Balloon Ventures website and branding (the former of which launched in January 2017, and the latter of which is being rolled out at the moment). For Josh there are a number of exciting projects in 2017, all of which signal real growth in the spread of Balloon’s work with entrepreneurs. “I’m really pleased to be able to tell you that our partnership with Citi is growing and this year we’ll take 24 Citi employees from across the world to Uganda to support exceptional microbusinesses in Jinja and Mbale.” Add this to the expansion of Balloon’s involvement in ICS, which will see an additional 500 volunteers working with 1000 entrepreneurs, pitching for £150,000 of investment, and 2017 is shaping up to be an exciting year.
Balloon is always looking to innovate and improve its practises, and both Josh and Doug were keen to share some of these with us, “We’re testing some very exciting innovation projects,” said Josh, “We’re introducing psychometric testing into our entrepreneur recruitment in a partnership with UCL and META. We are also launching an online curriculum – Balloon Online – that will be used by volunteers working with startup entrepreneurs in Kenya. We are also growing our research arm hopefully to add value to the enterprise development sector and share insights and ideas.”
“As well as all those innovations”, added Doug, “we’ll also be trying out a brand new growth model for businesses graduating from micro- to SME in Ghana. The goal is to develop a repeatable and scalable process that helps growing teams capitalise on the opportunities common to this challenging, exciting transition.”
Doug continued, “The Balloon Network is another preoccupation for 2017. We want to do a much better job of supporting and showcasing the exceptional achievements of our alumni. And more than this, we want every experience with Balloon to kickstart a period of personal and community development that goes way beyond the programme itself. A lot of this will involve working much more closely with the team at Balloon Latam as we build on the scope and strength of Balloon’s global network – since 2012, we’ve worked with entrepreneurs, Fellows and Volunteers from more than 40 countries. That’s a powerful resource for advocacy, action and progress across the globe.”
Looking more to the long-term, Josh was keen to reinforce Balloon’s central mission: “At Balloon, we believe that entrepreneurs running small businesses will end poverty. Our job, as we see it, is to unleash their potential and give them everything they need to do this faster. As we continue to grow and develop, we’ll be laser-focussed in making this happen.”