supermodels & startups

British Supermodel Lily Cole Taps Into Tech With Her Startup, Impossible.com

It's a social network for activism.
lilycole British Supermodel Lily Cole Taps Into Tech With Her Startup, Impossible.com

Lily Cole with Sean Lennon. (Photo by Dane Brown)

This is a guest post from Gary Sharma (aka “The Guy with the Red Tie”), founder and CEO of GarysGuide and proud owner of a whole bunch of black suits, white shirts and, at last count, over 40 red ties. You can reach him at gary [at] garysguide.com.

I recently hung out with British supermodel & actress Lily Cole who can now add social entrepreneur to her list of achievements! Lily was discovered at the age of 14 in London, graced the cover of British Vogue at 16, modeled for Chanel, Louis Vuitton & Prada, acted with Johnny Depp AND has a double degree with honors from Cambridge. Nice!

Her new startup, Impossible.com, is based on the conviction that people can and should help each other, for FREE. In a time when so much seems to be about posing and over-sharing, a social network built on altruism and idealism is a refreshing change!

sponsor garys red tie British Supermodel Lily Cole Taps Into Tech With Her Startup, Impossible.comGARY: Congrats on the launch of your baby, Impossible.com! The concept of selfless giving & receiving reminds me a lot of Burning Man and the Open Source Software movement. How did you come up with the idea?

LILY: I was traveling with a friend – Kate, who now works with us – and we were talking about the economy… questioning how dependent we are on our economic structure to the point that when it falters (as it recently had in the recession) societies immediately falter. Through that conversation we struck upon the idea of using a technical platform (a website at the time was the reference) to connect people to share skills, services and resources without money as the medium. I hadn’t heard of the “gift economy” at that point, and though I knew of Burning Man I didn’t understand it in that context.

The idea really haunted me there after, and I started researching and discovered the concept of the gift economy – and indeed better understood how it is applied in contexts like Burning Man, open source software, and pre-capitalist societies… I wouldn’t call it “selfless giving and receiving” though. I actually think being part of non-transactional economies can be self-serving (if for every time you give, you also receive). It’s just another way to do things and I am keen on the need to diversify our economic options.

You’ve got a terrific domain. How hard was it to get it and why the name Impossible?

My thesis in Cambridge was called Impossible Utopias and I looked in part at how we frame ideas of what is possible/impossible. That arguably almost anything is possible and certainly a lot more than the common notion of “impossible” precludes. I was aware of the utopian/optimistic spirit of this project (the gift economy) and cynicism it might meet… so I thought Impossible was an appropriate response a priori to that. And we cross the “I’m” out so it reads Possible (and make a play on IM POSSIBLE sometimes).

The domain was owned by someone in Santa Barbara and miraculously available to buy. It wasn’t cheap, and so in some ways tested my commitment to this project. I bought it when I decided I was deeply committed and would do what I could to bring it to life thereafter…

So, it’s always hard going from an idea to an actual product. Walk me through the early days (and struggles).

Indeed! One of the hardest things I have ever done. The concept is so simple and obvious, but working out to facilitate it in a simple way was incredibly challenging. The concepts of “wishing” and “thanking” and the logic by which they work seem so obvious now, but took a while and a lot of thought and advice to arrive at. Conceptually I would think through one problem at a time (what is the technical structure website versus social network etc, how do you reflect what’s happening in the system without collapsing into a currency, what is the name, what is the design/imagery like, how do you facilitate supply versus demand, what is the legal structure of the company etc, endless conversations and articulations of UX logic…) and spoke to a lot of people I met randomly through my travels taking advice, until I felt I had found the right solution to the given problem.

That jigsaw piece would come into place and slowly over time it became clearer. It almost felt like sculpting. I was also growing a little team of advisors around me who were inspired by the idea and helped me articulate it. In the meantime from a development perspective I had a few early nightmares. I paid an individual to build it before we had worked out the concept and it took a few stressful months to work out that was going no where. Then I hired an agency, but that also was quite a frustrating process. Finally, I thought I would try one last time. and I met Kwame Ferreira who has since become the CTO of sorts on the project. He really understood our vision and put a team of developers onto building it. We built what I had worked out so far, and then started testing it and changing the elements and details to refine it (a process we continue to do).

I like that the platform is broad & generic (like Twitter) encouraging all sorts of submissions. What are some of the things people are offering or wishing for?

I love when people offer things. You also get some very touching wishes. It is incredibly positive, as the community is very generous and supportive. I have been surprised and touched to see how honest and sad some of the wishes can be; People in difficult situations who open up their stories and needs very honestly. I would like to see more and more practical things being done, and imagine this will be the case as localized dense communities grow.

Okay, lets talk money. Are you funded? Bootstrapped? Thinking of going the VC route?

Fairly bootstrapped! Built in large part through the gift economy itself. I started out funding it myself, then applied for a grant in England through the Innovation in Giving fund (backed by the Cabinet Office and delivered through Nesta) who match funded my input. We have had lots of pro bono work through companies including KwameCorp who do the development, friends who handle PR and Herberrt Smith Freehills who do the legal work, and loads of individuals.

I am exploring and would love to get further investment to help take this to the next level, though we are structured as a social business so it would have to be an unorthodox VC interested in a different understanding of return who would want to get involved! I do believe they exist….

You’re running Impossible.com as a full-time day job now. What’s a day like in the life of Lily Cole, the startup founder?

Yes, I have been full-time of late. It depends what the need is. Generally speaking I have moved between spending time on the product and working out the next development priorities with the team, to periods of promotional activity. I spend much more time on my computer and doing emails than I would like to / used to have to!! But I have such an interesting world of friends and colleagues now I feel inspired to know and be working with…

I’m curious. You have two high-profile advisors – Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. How did you get them interested in your idea?

I met them in Davos in 2012 and simply told them what I was doing. Jimmy was immediately interested as he has explored gift economies through his work on Wikipedia (a very large gift economy!) and open source technology. I spoke with Yunus about the legal structure of the company, which I was exploring at the time, and was inspired by this concept of Yunus Social Business (run a business with a social mission and reinvest all profit into that mission). I went with him to Bangladesh to study it and felt it was the right fit for Impossible. We returned to Davos in 2013 and did a talk about these two economic ideas (the gift economy and social business).

Startups can be stressful! What do you lay awake at night worrying about?

I’ve had lots of sleepless nights! It was worse before I met Kwame and hadn’t found the right development team. Usually it’s thoughts about the product and how we can improve it that keeps me up…

The Sharing Economy is becoming popular with Uber and Airbnb leading the way. The Gifting Economy, which you’re part of, sounds equally fascinating.

There is crossover between sharing and gifting although we are quite different from companies such as Uber and AirBnB who still use money/exchange as their means of connection between people. I actually find it a little misleading to call systems like Uber and AirBnB “sharing” though I do respect and appreciate how they break down transactions to a more peer-to-peer level and empower people through that logic.

I would say Impossible is closer to models like Freecycle and CouchSurfing who have proven that non-bilateral return works. In gifting paradigms the return you get from “giving” isn’t as direct or quantified as it would be in an exchange (indeed there is no promise of a return as there might be with the price tag) but instead depends on trusting that if you are in community of people giving and receiving, you will likely receive too, it just might come at another time / from another person and with a gift of a different scale (bigger or smaller). This then relies on and arguably creates social rather than transactional relationships (with friends or strangers).

Another trend I’ve been noticing is around Conscious Consumption and translating objects into experiences. Etsy. Whole Foods. Chipotle. You are doing something in that space with North Circular. Tell me more about it.

Yeah! Love that space and think it’s really important. It is linked to Impossible in thinking that economics is so impactful on our planet and social relationships, that we should look to economics to seek to remedy problems systemically. I have looked at production chains a lot and their impacts (negative and positive) for many years through fashion – working with the EJF foundation, the body shop and founding The North Circular to promote the possibility of transparency and socializing production chains (i.e. we put the names of knitters on the knit wear, and actually have now given the knitters Impossible profiles so you can connect with them or thank them too if you want).

I am also doing a project with WWF and Sky (Sky Rainforest Rescue) looking at the wild rubber trade and how a growth in it might mitigate deforestation. Watch this space — we might pull these elements into Impossible…

I love red & always wear a red tie! You’re famous for your signature fiery red hair. Ever change your hair color?

I’ve changed my hair for movies (black, blonde) but I’m very happy to have my color back right now… I love having red hair!

You have a new movie coming out in October called Gravy.

It is a very black comedy. Black hole black, but somehow still comedic. And that combination is twisted and interesting.

You were brought up in London but lived in New York in your late teens. Miss New York? Any plans on coming back here?

I will always love New York! I fell in love with the city when I was 18. I have no plans to move back (it feels a bit busy for me now at the grand age of 26) but never say never…

And finally, you’re a role model to many young girls out there. What’s your advice to them?

Not sure I am a role model…. but my advice to them would be the same as it would be to young boys. Dream big — push the boundaries of what you think possible — believe in yourself — follow your heart – create your dreams — and define the world you want us to live in!

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