How to build a tech for good startup: Beam
After befriending a homeless man at his local tube station, Alex Stephany knew there was more that could be done to help people experiencing homelessness. This led him to create Beam, the world’s first crowdfunding platform for homeless people. By providing them with a support network and funds for training, Beam enables their members to get back into stable work.
We’re huge admirers of the work that Beam does, so we’re delighted to have the opportunity to speak with their team and dig a little deeper into their story.
In this Q&A we’ll be discussing how you can make a social impact startup stand out in a crowded marketplace, as well as discovering some expert tips from Beam’s Founder, Alex Stephany, and Beam's Head of Communications, Montana Gerry.
So, let's jump right in...
With Alex coming from more of a traditional tech startup background, how much of a gear-change was it to then enter the world of tech for social good?
Alex: I’ve been lucky enough to have had several unique experiences that led to the founding of Beam. Firstly, I learnt about crowdfunding by running the largest ever crowdfunding campaign for a tech startup at the time - and realised it could be used for far more social ends. Secondly, my time as CEO at JustPark taught me a lot about collaborative models, which led to me writing a book on the sharing economy and advising the Mayor of Seoul on how collaborative platforms could solve major problems.
At its core, Beam is a collaborative model built around the power of the crowd, so my previous experience in this space really paved the way for Beam. By this point, I’d also built a strong profile and network within the tech sector, which certainly helps when launching a new business.
I’d say the biggest challenge moving into the tech for good space is solving a problem that is far harder than the problems that many VC-backed businesses are solving, and doing so with much less money. That said, Beam has an amazing group of tech entrepreneurs, HNWs and foundations funding us, who have been loyal since day one.
How long did it take to get from inception to execution with Beam?
Alex: Four years ago, I got to know a homeless man who sat outside my local Tube station. I’d buy him cups of coffee and pairs of thermal socks when it was getting cold. At one point, the man disappeared for weeks on end. When he reappeared, he looked years older: he told me he’d had a heart attack and had just come out of hospital. Despite the well-meaning gestures from myself and no doubt others, he was in a worse position than ever.
So I began to ask himself what it would take to make a lasting difference to this man’s life. He had never had a job, and was illiterate. For me, the answer lay in empowering him with the skills and training needed to sustainably support himself. Of course, that would cost far more than coffees or socks - but what if everyone chipped in?
The idea of crowdfunding employment training for homeless people was born. Over the following nine months, I developed the model working with homeless people and charities and Beam launched in October 2017.
In terms of branding and marketing, did you have a set vision in terms of name or brand styling when Beam first started up, or has it been more of a fluid process?
Montana: It was Alex who came up with the name Beam. First and foremost, a physical beam provides support - Beam is all about supporting people into stable, paid work. But there are other reasons too. For example, Beam is about positivity - you can beam a smile and we aim to help the people we work with as well as their supporters to beam! Beam is also a beam of light, guiding people who’ve experienced homelessness out of what can feel like a dark place. And finally, Beam allows supporters to beam support from wherever they are in the world - and so far, people from more than 50 countries have done just that.
When we launched in 2017, we didn’t have much budget to play with, so Alex designed the logo himself. It was stylised as BEAM - so people kept asking us what it stood for. It didn’t really stand for anything at the time, but it was our head of engineering, Julian Keenaghan, who came up with an idea: it should stand for "Be amazing". This has since become our slogan, and is what we believe happens when we fulfil our human potential by giving and receiving support.
In 2019, we had a brand refresh and Beam is now stylised as ‘Beam’. The overall look and feel is slick yet simple. I also love our brand colours - especially the hot pink - which features heavily on our Beam merch. You can check out our shop here.
When was Beam’s first brand or marketing hire made and what was the trigger point?
Montana: In Summer 2019, we hired a Marketing & Community Manager who was responsible for social media, email marketing, events and content creation. Before this, Beam had primarily relied on volunteers, but it was clear that there were so many more opportunities to grow the community and share the incredible stories of our beneficiaries.
I then joined Beam in September 2019 to look after PR and comms. Our Marketing & Community Manager left the team last year to go freelance (she’s also a full-time influencer), at which point my role expanded to cover marketing as well. We’ve since made a junior hire who supports me on the day-to-day, and we love how varied the work is.
We’re currently on the lookout for a growth marketer to join our team. If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, head over to our careers page.
Beam’s origin story is really compelling, how much do you use storytelling as a marketing tool to help spread the word about Beam and your members?
Montana: Storytelling is a huge part of what we do at Beam, both through our website and emails, but also via social media, video and PR. By telling these human stories, we can help change the narrative around what it means to be homeless, and give a voice to some of the most marginalised people in our community. In fact, we find our most successful content involves storytelling.
I was lucky enough to work with one of our beneficiaries, Regina, a single mum who fled an abusive relationship and became homeless. With Beam’s support, she was able to crowdfund £3,920 from nearly 600 members of the public to train as a dental nurse. She now works at a dental practice and her life has been completely transformed. Last year, she gave an inspirational TEDxtalk about her journey, the support she received from Beam and her plans for launching a buddy scheme to support female victims of domestic violence. This is storytelling in its purest form - raw, unedited, and from the heart.
What has been the most successful method of raising awareness about Beam? Both in terms of marketing channels and content more specifically.
Montana: To date, PR has been one of the most successful ways of raising awareness of Beam. We’ve been featured in some incredible publications - from The Guardian to The Times - which has helped build Beam’s profile and brought in lots of donations. The stories that tend to work best are the ones that feature interviews with our beneficiaries, talking about how Beam’s support has changed their life.
LinkedIn has also been a very powerful channel for us. Alex is very well-connected on LinkedIn and regularly uses his platform to share stories of our beneficiaries, as well as key business milestones and other wins. We aim to bring good news to people’s news feeds at a time when there’s not much to get excited or hopeful about, and it really pays off.
What has been the biggest challenge the team has faced?
Montana: In terms of marketing challenges, we’re still a small team and we don’t have the budget for huge awareness-raising campaigns, so we have to be nimble and creative with our resources. We also haven’t been able to grow our social media channels as quickly as we might have liked - we try to experiment as much as possible to see what works and share learnings - but this is an area we’re planning to invest a lot more in this year.
Your recent Fund a Future campaign was a great example of innovation spurred by the pandemic. How did that come about and what results have you seen from this campaign?
Montana: Thank you! In the early days of the pandemic, we were contacted by a new creative agency called Good Brains for Good Brands, which was set up to support charities and social enterprises who risked losing donations during the pandemic. They agreed to execute a creative campaign for us entirely pro bono, using an incredibly talented team of top-class creatives and designers.
We want to land a really simple message that was also really relevant to what we were all going through during the pandemic.
Specifically, we noticed that a number of sectors are facing labour shortages, which is only being exacerbated by Covid-19. At the same time, there are thousands of homeless people who want to start work. So we decided to bridge that gap. We asked the UK to “Fund a Future” for a homeless person, with an emphasis on roles facing the biggest skills shortages.
We placed posters outside hospitals, care homes, supermarkets, offices and building sites around London - highlighting the sectors in most need of workers and the opportunity for homeless people to plug the gap. It was a lovely campaign and it was great to see it being picked up in the Evening Standard too.
We were also fortunate to receive support from various OOH companies including JC Decaux and Evolve OOH, who donated free outdoor billboard space to our campaign, which helped us reach even more eyeballs. It was amazing to see so many people donating on the back of it, with messages like: “I saw the billboard on the A3!”.
Can you share any plans with us for spreading the word about Beam even further and gaining more brand advocates?
Montana: We hope to do more with influencers and brand partners to grow Beam’s reach, particularly on social media. We did some really awesome brand giveaways with brands including The Nomad Society, Acala and Rituals last Christmas, which brought in lots of donations and followers.
We’re also keen to see more brands sending Beam gift cards to their customers. One brand that already does this is Mustard, an online retail store that sells these amazing retro lockers. They send every customer a £5 Beam gift card once they’ve made a purchase, which the customer then allocates to a homeless person fundraising on Beam’s website. As a business, this is an amazing way to show your customers that you care about making a difference in the world, at the same time as building Beam’s supporter base.
We’ve also got International Women’s Day coming up on 8th March where we intend to raise awareness of the incredible women who have used Beam, and showcase their talents. Again, it’s about giving a voice to women who are usually forgotten about, and showing that their homelessness in no way defines them.
And finally, what advice can you give to other tech for good startups?
Montana: At the moment, journalists are desperate for good-news stories, so it’s the perfect time for tech for good startups to start making some noise. The key thing when pitching to journalists is always relevance. Why should people care about what you’re doing? What problem are you solving, and why is it important that this is solved? Who else is trying to solve this, or are you the first? What you’re doing might be incredibly unique and innovative, but if it lacks relevance, you’ll struggle to get cut-through.
We want to say a massive thank you to Alex and Montana for taking the time to speak with us. Learn more about Beam and how you can get involved in their wonderful work, here.