There’s two reasons I haven’t written for a while, and I’ll dedicate an article to each one. First up: HackFWD. This is easily the most interesting client project I’ve ever worked on. Entrepreneur Lars Hinrichs, founder of Xing came to IDEO with a fantastic vision, one that kept us excited for several months: “Unleash the untapped developer talent of Europe”. Behind this vision was the instinct that thousands of software programmers are trapped in corporate jobs and are not realising their passion through their 9-5; instead many have a side project that they tinker away at in their spare time.

What made Lars’ vision so compelling was that until now, no one had successfully created the right kind of environment that would enable Europe to be able to foster entrepreneurship in the same way that has happened in places like Silicon Valley. Of course recreating Silicon Valley has been attempted many times around the world, but with limited success. It’s a noble attempt given that the area gave birth to so many household names like Hewlett-Packard, eBay, Intel, Google, Cisco and Yahoo! But what so many people forget is that it’s impossible to recreate the conditions of one cultural phenomena in another, entirely different, context, geography, time, and culture. Silicon Valley’s success came from a unique set of circumstances: early post-war defense research funding, which gave rise to an efficient network of venture capital firms; coupled with proximity to academia’s talent and resources.

Lars Hinrich realised early on that recreating these conditions was not going to work in Europe. He knew he had to understand what European developers needed to help them develop great products and get them to market. So to do that we spent time with developers to understand their hopes and fears when making their ideas a reality. From understanding what makes developers tick, we started designing an offer that would give them the confidence and freedom to leave their regular jobs and work in an environment that could help them fully realise their ideas.

Once we had designed the offer, we began looking at what kind of organisation would be needed to support it. One of the most unique aspects of HackFWD is its networked model. It leveraged the inherent affinity with network working that this group of people is already comfortable to bring together people from across Europe to work together yet independantly on their own ideas, but come together in the right way and at the right moments to help each other and get feedback.

But it’s not just a networks of geeks, HackWFD has created an academic network of referrers to help find the 1% of European developers. To do that, they are equipped with the knowledge of what to look for in a great HackFWD geek: those able to see the development of a product through to the end, have a clickable demo, are naturally curious and collaborative, and who have a passion for creating new things.

Because HackFWD focusses on early stage investments, individuals with brilliant but fragile ideas that need nurturing, it required a different structure to that of a traditional VC firm. We needed three main functions: talent, product, and finance. Product and Finance are no-brainers, but having Talent as a core competence might seem unusual, until you think about the ‘investment’ being truly driven by individuals and the network that they form together. In order to be successful, you have to know who to look for, both in terms of skills, but also in terms of personality.

HackFWD has already generated significant excitement and buzz in the developer community and more generally in the media. TechCrunch Europe described it as “Like a Klingon Romulan starship de-cloaking in the middle of Europe”

Check out the website hackfwd.com where you can watch the video that explains the whol concept (narrated by no other than Stephen Fry) and see other tools that we created to help people understand their business ideas more fully and figure out if HackFWD is for them. Who knows, maybe you know someone who might be a good fit? If you do, let me know.