[Hpn] BIG ISSUE founder launches Internet sites to fight homelessness (fwd) (fwd)

Tom Boland wgcp@earthlink.net
Sun, 24 Dec 2000 14:14:18 -0800 (PST)

FWD  [Uk] The Guardian - Thursday December 14, 2000


     The founder of the magazine which helps the homeless
     has set his sights on cyberspace.

     Sean Dodson reports Net news

He is the self-appointed champion of the homeless, a former rough sleeper
who found fame as founder of the Big Issue. Now, John Bird MBE says the
next front in the fight against homelessness is cyberspace - and he's going
to launch a raft of websites to prove it.

It's 10am, Tuesday morning at a famous black cab cafe near Euston Station.
An unlikely time and place for a press conference, maybe. But a huddle of
photographers, reporters and supportive friends have gathered for the
launch of <http://ABCtales.com/> ABC tales, Bird's new storytelling website
and literary magazine. There is no champagne, but a fair bit of
backslapping as Bird swaps quips with the cabbies. They tell the tallest
tales in London, he says with a wink.

"The reason I'm doing all this is because the Big Issue has only had one
product for nine years," explains Bird. "We need to find a way of creating
wealth and opportunity for homeless people as there are few big providers
of work for the homeless out there."

To do this, Bird explains that he has formed a new company with chair of
the Body Shop Gordon Roddick and Red Pepper supremo Tony Cook. The trio
have raised nearly 500,000 [pounds] of venture capital to create Burgeon
Creative Ideas (BCI). Half will go on ABCtales and the rest will be
distributed between a number of other sites.

Bird says ABCtales will make money through a combination of advertising,
sponsorship and e-tailing. It is a storytelling site that asks its users to
upload stories. Even before its official launch, the site has attracted
nearly 10,000 visits a week. It has 300 stories ready for publication and
has received stories from as far away as Hanoi and San Francisco. The best
stories on the site will be published in a monthly magazine, to be given
away free on the tube and in the Body Shop.

The site also plans to publish anthologies of the best writing from the
website. Bird anticipates that it will take two to three years to see any

Bird claims BCI will help the homeless in two ways. First, 20% of
post-investment profits will be poured back into the Big Issue.

Second, the company will act as an incubator for a number of new media
sites. Initially, the sites will be commissioned and built in-house, but if
profitable, Bird claims pitches from the homeless will be actively
encouraged. The other 80% of potential profits will be shared among the
staff of each site. At the moment Bird gets a wage from the Big Issue, but
no dividends.

ABCtales is the second website launch in a month for Bird. Two weeks ago
saw the launch of <http://www.getethical.com> Get Ethical - a kind of
virtual Arndale Centre that aims to "promote and advance ethical
capitalism." The Big Issue (ie not BCI) bought a 28% stake in the site,
which is owned by the left/green political magazine Red Pepper. The site
has been live for two weeks.

"Everybody's always banging on about giving people things. But if you are a
giver then you create takers, if you create takers then you create
dependency," says Bird. "I'm not saying that business is the answer to all
things, but I don't think charity is either. We can come up with a hybrid
that uses business acumen and skills to create work and social
transformation and at the same time have charitable intentions."

The conversion from old-style social entrepreneur to new media wannabe
started when Bird was in Los Angeles, struggling to establish a LA version
of the Big Issue. "I found that I couldn't get anyone to sell the paper
because homeless people didn't warm to this neon sign above them saying
'failure'," he admits.

So Bird began employing homeless workers (in the UK vendors work
freelance), starting them as distributors, then training them up to work in
an office. This was when Bird began to see the internet, in particular some
of the wealth creation schemes of the new economy, as a potential source of
employment for homeless people.

Ideas for other sites are in the pipeline. In February the company will
launch a site with the working title of Dr Checkoff. A bright idea that
will attempt to collect the 101 most useful checklists (buying a house,
coping with the menopause, questions to ask your insurance broker, and so
on). The site will be launched in the US first, and in the UK in April.
Bird says he will then launch another website and magazine based around
reviews provided by the general public.

Beyond that, Bird wants to move into investment banking and he is currently
under consideration by the Financial Services Authority. He has already
formed another company - Social Brokers Limited - that he intends to grow
into an investment bank, to fund entrepreneurial projects that will benefit
homeless people. Also, the Big Issue will be expanding its website. The
magazine will not be going online, but Bird says he wants to turn it into
"a powerful campaigning website".

True, Bird wants to make some money for himself and, true, it will take
more than a few websites to get tens of thousands off the streets of our
towns and cities. But there is no doubt that the down and outs' current
champion caught more than a bit of sunshine while he was out in California.

So with Christmas around the corner and a government campaign urging people
not to give to beggars, what should we do? Give to charity or give spare
change in the street? Consider another solution, says Bird. If you can, why
not give an opportunity instead?


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