By Nick Travis, partner at Smith & Williamson
This article was originally published in Smith & Williamson's Enterprise magazine, a thought leadership publication for entrepreneurs and growth companies.
Alex Stephany had emerged from a high-pressure technology start-up and was searching for a new project. Inspiration came from a homeless man he’d passed many times on his daily commute.Up to the point when he decided to tackle the UK’s homeless crisis, Alex Stephany’s career was drawn from the textbook of an energetic and successful entrepreneur. He went to Oxford and then spent time picking up experience at a series of start-ups, before helping launch JustPark.
JustPark matches drivers with parking spaces through its technology platform. As chief operating officer, Alex got his hands dirty with everything from marketing to customer support. He was promoted to CEO in 2012. By any measure, JustPark was a successful start-up: at the time of writing, it had over 45,000 locations and was used by 3.5 million drivers. Alex exited in 2015 but remained as an adviser to the Board.
As he weighed his options, Alex struck up a friendship with a homeless man at his local tube station, explaining:
“He was an Irish man in his forties. He would sit there on the steps, making sure he was in full view of the security camera above him, which made it less likely he would be attacked. He was illiterate and had never held a job.”
Alex bought him coffee, thermal socks and got to know him.
Then he disappeared. When he resurfaced, he was clean-shaven but looking years older. He’d had a heart attack and had just been discharged from hospital: “His position was worse than ever. I started to wonder what I could do to make a lasting difference.”
Rather than focusing on how it made him feel – pretty bad – he looked at potential solutions. Alex went away and read as much as he could; he talked to homeless people about how their liveshad taken this path.
There were existing solutions, provided by charities and local authorities, but these were often focused on short-term shelter and immediate needs.
His idea was to crowd- fund support for individual homeless people. He had some experience of crowdfunding. JustPark had launched an equity crowdfunding campaign to raise £1 million on major UK platform, CrowdCube, so he knew it could work. It ended up being the largest ever crowdfunding campaign for a tech start-up at the time, reaching £3.5 million.
He recruited a friend with technical wizardry to build a website. Here, people could tell their stories and outline their ambitions for the future. People could ‘sponsor’ individuals. They might want to train to be a dental nurse, or a plumber, and the platform would help them raise the finance to do it. This was the germination of Beam, which has now run since 2017.
This sounds simple in theory but is more complex in practice. These can be vulnerable individuals and there needed to be a clear process in place. The people are referred from the local authorities or established charities and usually come from homeless shelters or temporary accommodation rather than direct from the streets. The referral partner fills in the referral form for suitable people who are currently homeless or at high risk of becoming homeless. As it stands, they need to be 18 and over and have had a minimum of 12 weeks abstinence from alcohol and drugs.
When they come to Beam, the team will ask them what resources they need to achieve their ambitions. That includes not only training but also childcare and transport. Together, they create a specific plan. Alex says:
“As it stands, 80% of donations are split equally between all live campaigns. We also have a ‘transparency dashboard’, which tracks our impact in real time, so you can see the number of people who are supported into stable, skilled work.”
He says the structure of the website helps people build their self-confidence, a real problem for those that have been on the streets or living in temporary accommodation for many years:
“When people donate, they leave positive messages. People can see everyone who supports them and that’s really where the magic happens.”
So far, the website has helped 151 people and only 13 people have come off the platform. There are plenty of real success stories: Regina, for example, found herself with nowhere to turn following the failure of a difficult relationship and became ostracised from friends and family. Along with her young daughter, she was placed into temporary accommodation but struggled to pay her bills and quickly fell into debt. Through Beam, she crowdfunded £3,920 to complete her dental nurse training and started work as a trainee dental nurse earlier this year.
Alex says that taking an entrepreneurial approach to funding and solving a social problem is key:
“It was about using the power of technology to find a scaleable solution to an old problem.”
As always, getting finance was difficult but he has been helped along the way with a number of awards and consistent support from entrepreneurs and high-net-worth individuals who wanted to have a significant impact with their money and leave a legacy.
At the moment, Beam is focused on London but there are plans to move it out to the rest of the country. There is certainly no shortage of demand. The initiative is backed by the Mayor of London and Alex believes it has the potential to achieve real scale.
“Homelessness is a vast problem – there are 190,000 people in homeless hostels and a further 120,000 children who are homeless or at risk. We’re excited to scale our technology to help more and more disadvantaged people.”
You can watch Alex’s TEDx Talk about a new way to tackle homelessness here.