Last week I finally had the opportunity to interview Ben Keene, a polyhedric social entrepreneur. Always with a project on the go, Ben was behind ‘Tribewanted’, a project that crowdfunded the leasing of the Fijian island of Vorovoro to turn it into an eco-tourism village, and now ‘Rebel Book Club‘, which is helping people get maximum value from their reads and create impactful projects. If you are a restless mind working in tech to make this world a better place, you probably know him already.
Here we talked about building tribes and community, social impact and sustainability, his past and present projects, the main blockers for aspiring startup founders, as well as a few book recommendations for founders.
Hi Ben, very happy to have you here. Could you kindly give us a brief introduction about yourself?
Hello. I’ve spent the last 20 years trying not to get a job. This has led me on a wonderful, occasionally bumpy, career path. The thread that ties it all together is building purposeful communities – or ‘tribes’ – ideally with a sound business model, i.e. projects and ventures that bring people together to solve a problem in their lives or the world around them. I live in South West England with my patient wife and 3 children. Other than growing Rebel Book Club, I’m most excited this year about building a small woodland school behind our house and living closer to the sea.
That sounds pretty exciting. I started following your entrepreneurial adventures about 15 years ago when I read of these two guys that were crazy enough to crowdfund the renting of a remote desert island in the Fiji archipelago, pursuing the idea to build a community there, with a project called Tribewanted. Can you explain a bit of that story? How things have evolved since then?
It’s a big story, for me at least. The short version is that on Vorovoro Island, it was foretold that one day ‘the world would come’. In 2006 an email connected the small Fijian community with an online ‘tribe’ of travellers, and from here a new adventure began.
Since then, on Vorovoro, at John Obey Beach in Sierra Leone, in the Umbrian hills, and in partnership with projects in Hubud, Bali and Gonubalabala, Papua New Guinea, we have been working with communities and welcomed over 3,000 visiting tribe-members, students, families and curious travellers. We’ve generated over €2.7 million in revenues, invested into local projects and supported over 100 jobs. The long version is in a book or here.
Before with Tribewanted, then with Escape the City, and more recently with the Rebel Book Club, you keep showing a passion for building “tribes”. So, what does it take to build one?
A common goal. A clear purpose. Then, an invitation to join with clarity around what you’re joining, how you can benefit the project and what you will get from it. After that, a simple rhythm so everyone knows what happens when.
What do you think are the primary challenges and benefits of starting or joining a tribe for startups and founders?
Benefits are a strong sense of belonging, purpose and fulfillment – it’s hard to beat!
Challenges are often around the business model, being clear about how it will work so expectations are managed against idealism, and then quality of communication, especially across cultures!
With Escape the City you helped hundreds of people start their business. What have you seen as the main blockers preventing people from going forward with their startup idea?
Fear of ‘failure’.
My idea isn’t ‘good enough’.
All of these are inverted commas because it’s our perception rather than a lived reality.
The best way to fight these is to re-frame a big idea as a small project, something you’re going to try out and see how it goes. Yes, be bold, but also do something! If you want it to get past day 3 then have some accountability either with a partner or actual customers/members.
There’s always a lot of talk around sustainability and social impact but it seems there’s still a lot to do. As a social entrepreneur, how do you see the industry evolving in the next 5-10 years?
There is! The exciting thing is that we’re living in a time where projects and businesses that put societal and environmental benefit at the heart of what they do are growing the fastest – as long as they have a good business model, and execute on their idea brilliantly.
The other reason they’re growing is because “the market” is demanding it. Even today the CEO of Black Rock (big investment bank) said we have to change the way we work. This is a frightening time, but it’s also a time of exciting change.
If you’re not building or supporting mission-driven, problem-solving business then you will be left behind. It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen in 10 months, let alone 10 years (history has sped up!). but focus on core values, the people that you believe in, and do a little bit everyday and good things will happen. It may feel fast, but change will take time and then come suddenly.
Coming back to talk about your latest venture, what is the Rebel Book Club all about?
Accelerating people’s reading habits and connecting them to like-minded thinkers and doers. Every month: 1 x non-fiction rebel read, 1 x meetup, 1 x bespoke cocktail. Now in 6 cities.
It’s really simple: reading books from start to finish and getting good value out of them (in terms of changes in your own life) is hard, because we’re digitally distracted. We need to re-sharpen our reading skills because a book (and the people you connect to around it) can change your life for the better.
I think Rebel Book Club at its best is a brilliant value monthly subscription: read more, read diversely, discuss more, do more. I’m so excited to see it grow and every month we have a new theme and book to discover together.
Is there any book in particular you think would be especially appropriate for our audience and would like to recommend?
So many. To get an idea out in the world, read ‘$100 Startup’, or ‘The Doorstep Mile’. For a classic business story, ‘Shoe Dog’. For how not to do it (a fun, shocking read), ‘Bad Blood’. The only book you need on marketing, ‘This Is Marketing’. Enjoy!