It's 10am on a Monday morning at Facebook’s Rathbone Place London HQ, and it feels a little like the first day of school.
New groups make tentative conversation; authority figures hover, trying to look approachable; no one knows where the loos are. The walls are decked out with stimulating posters. “Make, test, learn repeat” reads one; “The answer is in the audience” proclaims another.
It is a first day, of sorts: this is the inaugural launch of Facebook’s LDN_LAB, its first in-house start-up incubator. Seven new businesses will spend the next three months working in an airy annexe of the tech firm’s 247,000 sq ft office and attending mentoring sessions with Facebook executives. The sessions will cover areas including software, product development, data science and marketing.
There are 32 seats at LDN_LAB, a micro-kitchen, plants that function as informal space dividers and a “break-out” zone — that essential feature of any co-working hub. There is also a hotline to the top: Nicola Mendelsohn, head of Facebook in Europe, is on the LDN_LAB advisory panel.
Mostly, though, people are excited about the free food — one can be overheard rhapsodising about the CrossTown Doughnut station on the first floor.
Day one is a “day of immersion”, where the founders meet their mentors and size up their new neighbours. This year there will be three 12-week programmes, each on a theme — the theme of this first chapter is “community”. Each of the seven start-ups selected for the first cohort had to prove that they are “creating, building or empowering communities”.
For example, Rabble, which is moving its four-strong team in this morning, is a group exercise start-up: instead of spin classes, it musters teams and sends them to war in games of British Bulldog and Capture the Flag.
Olio connects local communities so surplus food can be shared, not thrown away, while Mush, a social network for mothers, has moved its five-person team and operations from Huckletree, a co-working space in White City.
Teacherly is a collaborative platform where teachers can create and share lesson plans, while GoodGym is a non-profit that creates fleets of runners who don’t lap the park but run to volunteering projects.
Founder Ivo Gormley came up with the idea eight years ago, when he started running to visit an isolated older man called Terry, who lived near him in Bethnal Green. “I was running to deliver the newspaper to him and he told me I needed to run a bit further if I was going to get any fitter,” he quips.
Sharecare is a social care start-up, while Tabl is a food community that connects customers with craft producers.
The magnificent seven were selected from a first round of 180 applicants by investment fund Bethnal Green Ventures (BGV), Facebook’s partner for the project. It whittled 180 down to a shortlist of 15 then, after a round of interviews, down to the final seven, and has also devised the mentoring programme.
A member of the fund will be in residence at LDN_LAB every day for the next three months. “We’re very hands-on,” says Vickie-Marie Gibbons, a partner in BGV.
If you mainly use Facebook to share memories from nine years ago or to click “maybe” on invites to acquaintance’s events, you might not spend a lot of time thinking about how the algorithm machinates in the background. But these start-ups know Facebook is the grandmaster of community: its marketing algorithms can target hyper-specific groups and the insights for these businesses are invaluable. They are all reverent on this theme.
“Facebook knows about targeting,” says GoodGym’s Gormley. “A lot of our runners use Facebook to share what they’ve done. This is about working out how we can use Facebook to maximise that sharing to help people get involved.”
The start-ups are also hoping Rathbone Place becomes its own community: Roach is thinking of starting a Rabble group on-site to break the ice. There’s talk of “synergy” between the start-ups — and sympathy. “If you’ve got a problem, someone else in the room has probably had it — or at least you’ve got somebody’s shoulder to cry on,” Roach notes.
So what’s in it for Facebook? Steve Hatch, its regional director for northern Europe, says Facebook has a new, benevolent mission in the capital and that LDN_LAB is its hero project. “Last year Facebook celebrated its 10th year in London,” he observes. “The city has been a huge success story for us — when we came to launch our new office in Rathbone Place we thought: ‘What can we do to support companies who will be having the same conversations in 10 years’ time about growth?’”
He notes that growing start-ups are hungry for practical rather than technical skills. “It’s not necessarily engineering expertise that want but the answer to questions like ‘How do I market myself?’”
The lab is part of a wider initiative called Community Boost, launched by Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg last month, which offers training for 50,000 small and medium sized-UK businesses and interested civilians. LDN_LAB also intersects with Facebook’s #SheMeansBusiness campaign, which will teach digital skills to 50,000 ascendant UK female entrepreneurs this year — five of the start-ups in this first cohort have female founders.
“It’s 552 steps from Rathbone Place to our first office,” Hatch reminisces. “Which was literally a sofa, some computers, a printer and some mobile phones, in Soho Square.”
At this rate, this group is outstripping Facebook already.