Micro-Entrepreneurship, Good Enough, and Crowd Sourcing

I read this post by one of the partners in one of the coolest web services around, you should open that in a new window and then come back.

Back? Great!

Lars, proposes crowd-funding as a way to support free software development. Basically, run a "sponsor me to develop stuff" program, but rather than fund free software as a start-up around a single project or work for a big vendor.

It's a nifty idea, and it's got me thinking about micro-entrepreneurship. This would be where you make or do things, but not on a big scale. The businesses you create are small, and probably aren't completely full-time equivalent, but in aggregate it's good enough. While this is not the most prominent form of entrepreneurship on the internet, my sense is that it's way bigger than most people think.

We're too used to seeing multi-million dollar venture capital fund raising, IPOs, big acquisition deals, to realize the multitude of people who are making a few to several tens of thousands of dollars doing much smaller amounts of work.

I suppose I could write a whole post on good enough economics in the vein of this post on patronage from JamesGovernor but I'll just leave a place holder link to a wiki page, in case someone else wants to fill things in.


  • Service-businesses don't scale particularly well, any individual work can only produce so much work, and it's hard to make individuals any more productive. In light of that, large service-based firms are unlikely to form.
  • Most people have pretty specialized skills and abilities. Self-employment, particularly full time employment makes it difficult for people to spend most of their time doing what their best at. Specialization and differing skills is also what creates a market for service-based endeavors.
  • Lacking health care and other benefits of traditional employment, it's hard for people to be more self-employed and less conventionally-employed. Given this, doing entrepreneurial projects on a smaller scale makes more sense.
  • Some kinds of entrepreneurial activities are attractive because, while they may not produce the same level of income as a salaried position, they allow more freedom and flexibility. This is the conventional justification for self-employment, and also the reason that most aligns with the "good enough" policy.

The problem with these kinds of "little businesses," is that it's too easy to focus on income earning work (e.g. freelance, and client work,) at the expense of doing basic work (e.g. developing core free software, doing basic research, writing fiction.) While the crowd sourcing notion makes a lot of sense, it requires a lot of faith in the crowd. I'm also unsure of how sustainable it is: while individuals can justify small amounts of money for such purposes, organizations cannot. Without organizational support, revenue is much lower, and it probably puts the larger financial burden on the smaller users, relatively speaking.

Packaging Technology Creates Value

By eliminating the artificial scarcity of software, open source software forces businesses and technology developers to think differently about their business models. There are a few ways that people have traditionally built businesses around open free and open source software. There are pros and cons to every business model, but to review the basic ideas are:

  • Using open source software as a core and building a thin layer of proprietary technology on top of the open source core. Sometimes this works well enough (e.g. SugarCRM, OS X,) and sometimes this doesn't seem to work as well (e.g. MySQL, etc.)
  • Selling services around open source software. This includes support contracts, training services, and infrastructure provisioning. Enterprises and other organizations and projects need expertise to make technology work, and the fact that open source doesn't bundle licensing fees with support contracts doesn't make the support (and other services) less useful or needed for open source.
  • Custom development services. Often open source projects provide a pretty framework for a technology, but require some level of customization to fit the needs and requirements of the "business case." The work can be a bit uneven, as with all consulting, but the need a service are both quit real. While the custom code may end up back in the upstream, sometimes this doesn't quite happen for a number of reasons. Custom development obviously overlaps with service and thin-proprietarization, but is distinct: it's not a it doesn't revolve around selling proprietary software, and it doesn't involve user support or systems administration. These distinctions can get blurry in some cases.

In truth, when you consider how proprietary software actually convey value, it's really the same basic idea as the three models above. There's just this minor mystification around software licenses, but other than that, the business of selling software and services around software doesn't vary that much.

James Governor of Red Monk suggests a fourth option: Packaging technology.

The packaging model is likely just an extension of the "services" model, but it draws attention to the ways that companies can create real value not just by providing services and not just by providing a layer of customization, but by spending time attending to the whole experience, rather than the base technology. It also draws some attention to the notion that reputation matters.

I suppose it makes sense: when businesses (and end users) pay for proprietary software, while the exchange is nominally "money" for "license" usage rights, in reality there are services and other sources of value. Thus it is incumbent upon open source developers and users to find all of the real sources of value that can be conveyed in the exchange of money for software, and find ways to support themselves and the software. How hard can it be?

Skill and Mastery

A few years ago, at a Morris Dance weekend, I saw a woman sitting in one of the common rooms obviously struggling with a piece of knitting. I helped her figure out something, and then went back to singing or whatever it was. When I returned to my chair the experienced dancer sitting next to me assumed I was the student and said, "Getting a knitting lesson, eh?"

And I chuckled in between choruses and said "Not really, I'm an even better knitter than I am a Morris dancer."

Impressed he said "Wow, and you're a pretty good Morris Dancer."

Which was an utterly delightful thing to hear, particularly from this chap. I'm an ok Morris dancer, and--particularly then--I tend to use youth as a compensation for skill. And I don't knit as much now I as used to, and while I don't know all there is to know about knitting, not by a long shot, I'm pretty good. I've been knitting for 8 years, or so and the thing that's keeping me from knitting these days is time, and the fact that I live in a pretty warm climate at the moment. I never see something knitted and think "wow that's too hard for me." In a lot of ways, I think I've mastered knitting.

In some ways that's kind of cool. It's nifty to be able to think about something and say, "yes! I can do this." And at the same time, I can't help but have a little bit of regret for the fact that I spent so much time figuring out how to do something that I can't really use most of the time: I don't live in a climate that really calls for woolens most of the time, I don't have any real interest in being a knitwear designer, and I consistently have trouble finding time to knit amongst all of the other things that I find myself committed to.

Speaking of which, I've certainly committed myself to other things. The dancing, I've spent a lot of time dancing and learning how to be a better dancer. And it's sort of paid off. I'm not great, and I fake my way though far too many things, but I feel competent, and I've gotten some pretty good feedback. And that's awesome. While it's fun and socially fulfilling--and that's good enough--at the same time I'm not sure if it gets me anywhere in particular. I don't really want to play music, and I'm not a very good teacher of dance.

I am incredibly grateful that I started dancing when I was in high school. I don't know if I'd have been able to pick things up as easily without those experiences. As with knitting in college, the early and intense experiences gave confidence and enough base-skill to make mastery a possibility. Had I started not when I did, I don't know that I would have had the patience, confidence, or persistence as a(n albeit-young) adult to learn the things that I do automatically. I can't really fathom it.

Which brings me to writing. And I don't even have a clue what to say there. I'm pretty good--I mean, I definitely have the persistence nailed--but I have no delusions that I'm a great writer. I've been writing forever, and I've definitely been in situations where I've had to edit other people's work and thought "wow, my prose may be flawed, but at least it isn't that." I wonder why writing is different then, at least for me. Am I a better dancer/knitter than I am a writer? Is it simply easier to critique writing than it is to critique a sweater or ones ability to dance socially? Is the fact that one some level the production of text has economic baggage in a way that a waltz so rarely does?

My own angst aside, I was talking with a longtime reader of the blog about employment and changing careers and about figuring what your skills and assets are. Because the transition from "I know how to knit sweaters and write things and dance," into "I have a job writing about Linux-based systems administration," isn't the kind of thing that makes sense immediately.

But when you dig, I think it does: it turns out that writing knitting patterns in a the narrative/Elizabeth Zimmerman-inspired way that I do/did, is very much like process for writing about systems administration tasks. And I think dancing gives you the ability to be nimble and quick, not just physically (which may be of limited use more generally,) but also in social situations. Fixing a contra dance line that's gone awry in the middle of the line has transferable skills. We hope, at least.

The challenge is in making those connections is difficult, and figuring out how to calculate the value that these skills might provide to the world. And isn't this always the case?

Conceptualizing Scale

I've been thinking about how ideas, projects, and ideas scale a bit in the past few weeks, and as usual, I wanted to collect a few of these thoughts. This post is generally in my series of posts of "Extrapolations from Systems Administration." Inspirations and origins of these ideas come from, in part:

The internet is a big place, you don't need me to tell you this, but I think that it's really incomprehensibly big. Even the small corners of the internet that we (well, I at least,) inhabit contain vast amounts of information and it's very difficult to keep your head above water, to feel like you're in touch with what's happening. Strategies for managing this information successfully are as concerned with "figuring out what to ignore," as they are about figuring out how to absorb information successfully.

Scaling an idea or a concept (like a blog, or a piece of software or a web server) to be able to address problem sets (like an audience, or a given set of data, or both) of different sizes is just as difficult. It's tough to get a web server to be able to host really large loads, its difficult to be able to write a blog that appeals to a huge audience: the this nexuses of related problems are quite large.

I think, however, we can begin to draw some conclusions. I do hope that you'll be able to help me add to this list. Perhaps in a wikish page.

  1. Be the biggest fish in the smallest possible pond.

    The core strategy here is to avoid having to figure out how to scale up to "full speed," by reframing the problem set. You don't have to become the most popular or widely consumed blogger/novelist: you just have to become the most popular blogger about cyborg philosophy, or the political economics and philosophy of the open source world. You have to become the most popular post-colonial historiography space opera novelist.

  2. Don't participate in the proliferation of crap: only build/use what you need to.

    I see lots of people say something along the lines of "I want to make a websites for all of the people interested in what I'm interested in, and we'll need a wiki and some discussion forums, and some sort of blogs, maybe a lot of blogs, and..." This inevitably leads to a bunch of organization and building of things for their websites, and then everything is built and... no one is interested in using the crap.

    This is a classic premature optimization problem. Don't build things that you think you might need later. Build things that you need now. Or things that you really needed last week. Focus on the thing you do, and build the infrastructure as you need it, when you need it.

  3. Work in a scalable and sustainable manner, and assume that other people will need to pick up on your projects.

    While you shouldn't expend the effort to scale before you need to, because that could end in failure, it's common sense to approach your projects with the assumption that other people might have to finish them for you, if things take off and you need to delegate later you'll be ready for them. Consider the possibility that you might need to scale a project when you're in the initial planning stages and avoid getting backed into a corner by a decision.

  4. Ignore everything you can possibly stand to.

    There are so many things that you could be doing with your time. There are so many distractions. Email lists, RSS feeds, the work of other people in your field. Charity projects of one sort or another. All of these things are important and you should participate fully in the communities that surround your work, but be fully aware that humans as individuals don't scale well, and succeeding at [your project] is dependent upon your ability to ignore everything that you can stand to.

  5. Consume information on your terms, in the formats that make the most sense to you.

    As a corollary to the above, the way to successfully engage and manage everything that you can't possibly stand to ignore is to as much as possible engage on your terms. Figure out what your terms are first, and then work to consume content in these terms.

  6. Use technology and media to build relationships rather than accumulate information.

    Too often, I think, the geekier among us (and I count myself among this number) are interested in technology because it's cool, and we're tempted to solve technological problems and learn about the inner workings of stuff because they interest us. And that's okay, as a hobby: in the pursuit of doing work, technology is only useful insofar as it allows you to get things done. And in most cases, the core function that technology provides is to enable relationships. So focus on that, and fiddle with the technical underpinnings, only when you must.

Onward and Upward!

Corporate Government

I was talking to someone, probably a coworker, and I was saying something about a "government," except I slipped and said "corporation." An easy mistake, if not a common one, perhaps, and certainly somewhat telling. In this post I want to discuss a number of ideas that have been lingering about in my thoughts regarding the role of corporations on culture and technology, and the role of corporate structures on the conveyance of cultural values.

In a lot of ways this post is the successor to my posts on: Martian Economics and Transformational Economics

Maybe that's a bit much for one blog post. In brief:

  1. Corporations and Governments

We can think of both corporations and governments fall into the larger category of "formal social institutions," or "formal collective institutions." They are both, at least in theory, productive beyond the ability of a single individual, and both dominate the shape and course of our lives to significant degrees.

  1. Corporate Structure and Cultural Transmission

How corporations, and governments more obviously, are structured and behave is--I would argue--a means of creating and transmitting cultural values.

  1. Praxis and IBM: Autonomy and Bottom Up Organization

I use these two examples--one fictional, one actual--as possible illustrations of a different sorts of ways of thinking about corporate organization. Both of these examples represent large institutions engaged in diverse operations, that are organized (I think) with a great number of quasi-autonomous operations and divisions, which contribute to common project but have the freedom to operate independently and encapsulated ways. This strikes me as a unique modality.

This leads to a lot of questions, and not very many good answers. I suppose that's not intrinsically a bad thing.

  • One of the biggest problems with corporations as far as I'm concerned is that by virtue of their fiduciary responsibility they have no obligation to operate in a sustainable manner or in the common interests of either their employees or the public.

    Can the potentially harmful potentials inherent in corporate person-hood be offset by certain types of organization?

  • Is there a better way to manage and organize our political society that balances the power of governments, corporations, that is sustainable and efficient?

  • We talk, and think, a lot about how the Internet affects how people use technology, and how the Internet creates new possibilities for business. How does the Internet change the way we organize our work lives? Has technology made smaller corporate operations more sustainable and able to compete?

  • Are the alternatives loose and autonomous-cells in corporate organizations that might be able to address the concerns regarding efficiency and sustainability?

And so forth...

Links on the Art of Techology

I have a collection of links that I'd like to share with you. I hope you enjoy and find them as enlightening as I have. Some of these are dated but, I've been milling through them for a while and I feel like they're worth sharing. In three parts:

Computer Programming and Hacking

There's a long tradition of computer scientists and eminent developers thinking about their software development as an Art. Donald Knuth's major work is called "The Art of Computer Programming," and literate programing is fundamentally an artistic rather than a technical idea. The idea of the "lazy programmer" from the Perl world has some obvious artistic implications (hell, Perl's license is called the "Artistic License"), and the Extreme Programing (XP)/Agile Programming world is very much about addressing programming as creative challenge rather than a purely technical challenge.

I particularly like the contrast of the first two articles with the third. While I'm not sure it's particularly conclusive in the brief overview and with such a small sample, the insights about the ways that programmers approach problems is pretty useful. Makes me want to get the book.

I may not be a programmer in the conventional sense (or even any of the unconventional senses that I'm aware of) but there are two things that I know for sure. First: functional programming makes sense to me in a way that nothing else ever really has, and secondly that I am fascinated by the different ways that people use and manage projects with Git.

I think functional program makes sense to me because little blocks that "do something" matches the way my brain is shaped in some useful way. Every introduction to object oriented programming I've ever experienced starts with like 50 pages (or equivalent) of crud about data structures and types . Which I'm sure make sense if you know what's coming next, but if you're a programing n00b: less than helpful.

Also, regarding the use of git: it's fascinating how many different ways and different work-flows people manage to squeeze out of software like this! What he's doing makes sense, a lot of sense on paper, but most people don't publish long-running branches in such an organized manner. Sure there are "vendor branches" for release maintenance, but branches in git tend to be much more ad hoc from what I've seen. Anyway, good one for the file.

I've been looking over weppy for the past few weeks, along with the bindings for a couple of weird databases (of the NoSQL variety, loosely), as part of a brief attempt to learn how to think like a web-developer. (It's hard more on this later.) I find myself both incredibly enchanted with the prospect of some of these frameworks (particularly the python ones), and yet at the same time very unsure of what they represent in terms of the Internet. Frameworks aren't going anywhere, and I think by some measure they are "getting better," I do think they make it awfully easy to avoid putting in the time to "get it right," which might not matter most of the time, but when it does oh boy, does it.

Academia, Anthropology, Literature

I wrote a series of articles on the future of publishing and I found myself returning again and again to these two essays as a source of inspiration, and I haven't quite gotten them out of my head.

I'm not sure if I agree with this consensus, but it seems pretty clear that multi-media websites, twitter, and "blogs" (by some definition of the term) are acceptable replacements for journalistic publishing (newspapers, magazines). These essays, engage literary publishing, and force (particularly the second) us to think about the economics of booksellers, including branding, brick and mortar shops, which I think is incredibly important.

In the piece on Cyborg Anthropology, Amber Case discusses looks at the Singularity from a much less technical perspective. In a lot of ways this reminds me of my post on the Dark Singularity from a few months back. The singularity is, of course ultimately a cyborg problem.

Aaron Swartz's piece on the academy... I don't know that he's wrong, exactly, but I think I would avoid being as unilateral as he is. On the one had disciplines exist mostly to organize education not research, and if I were going to make a conjecture: we see more disciplanarity and sub-disciplining in fields with substantive funding outside of the academy. Doctors, lawyers, psychologists, biologists, chemists, have teeny-tiny little sub-fields; and by contrast you see a lot more interdisciplinary activity in the academic study of anthropology, literature, mathematics, and, say musicology. Interesting, nonetheless.

The Industry of Technology

Two posts here from James Governor of RedMonk that have guided (at least topically) my thinking in a couple of areas recently. This is particularly noticeable if you look over the recent archives. The first addresses Flash and the business of advancing the platform of the web. My trepidation with regards to flash is mostly the same as my trepidation with regards to all web technology. When you get down to it, my grumbling all goes back to the fact that the web is developing into this thing that is all about media rich software, and less about hypertext, which is where my heart has always been. My argument keeps going back to "take the applications off of the web as we know it, and use a platform that (like GTK+ or QT) that's designed for applications, and create a hypertext experience that really works." But it's nice to have articles like this one to pull my head out of (or into?) the clouds to remind me (and us?) what's really going on in the industry.

This is an old one from the same source, about the new "patronage economy" which in many ways defines what's going on at RedMonk. I particularly enjoy how Governor contrasts the New Patronage with other popular web 2.0-era business models. I do worry, looking at this in retrospect about the ways in which such patronages are stable even when the economy is in the crapper (as it were.) I'm not sure if there's an answer to that one yet, but we'll see. I guess my questions, at this juncture are: first, does patronage-type-relationships give "start ups" another funding option which is more stable than venture capital. Second, doesn't the kind of organization and work that's funded by these patronages subvert the kind of work that they depend upon (i.e. big high-margin businesses?)

That's all I have at the moment. If you have links or thoughts to share, I'd live to see them!

Building the Argument

I was talking to my grandmother (Hi!) last week, as I do most weeks, and we discussed the blog. She's been a regular reader of the site for many years, and lately, we've enjoyed digging a little deeper into some of the things that I've written about here. She said, I think of the Owning Bits, and I agree, that it sort of seemed that I was building something... more.

But of course.

I don't know that I've connected all of the dots, either in my head or on the blog, but I think that the things I've been blogging about for the last year or so are all conected, interwoven, and illuminate incredibly interesting features of each other when considered as a whole. There is "something building" here. To recap, so that we're on the same page, the nexus of subjects that I've been milling over are:

  • Free Software and Open Source Software Development.

I'm interested in how communities form around these projects, how work is accomplished, both technically, and organizationally. I'm interested in how innovation happens or is stifled. How the communities are maintained, started, and lead. From a social and economic perspective there's something fundamentally unique happening in this domain, and I'd like to learn a lot more about what those things are.

This topic and area of thought have taken a backseat to other questions more recently, but I think it's fundamentally the core question that I'm trying to address at the moment. I think that I'm going to be making a larger point of addressing open source methodologies in the coming weeks and months as part of an attempt to pull things back together. I think.

I started writing about the IT industry because I found itreally difficult to think about Free Software without really knowing about the context of free software. One really needs to understand the entire ecosystem in order to really make sense of what open source means (and doesn't mean.) Particularly in this day and age. Initially I was particularly interested in the Oracle/Sun Merger, and the flap around the ownership of MySQL; but since then, I think I've branched out a little bit more.

I've tried very hard to not frame the discussion about the IT industry and open source as a "community" versus "enterprise" discussion, or as being "free" versus "non-free," or worse "free" versus "commercial." These are unhelpful lenses, as Free Software and Open Source are incredibly commercial, and incredibly enterprise-centric phenomena, once you get past the initial "what do you mean there's no cost or company behind this thing."

In the same way that thinking about the IT Industry provides much needed context for properly understanding why "open source communities" exist and persist: thinking about how we actually use technology, how we relate to techno-social phenomena, and how these relationships, interfaces, and work-flows are changing. Both in changing response to technology, and changing the technology itself. It's all important, and I think the very small observations are as useful as the very large observations.

In some respects, certainly insofar as I've formulated the Cyborg Institute, the "cyborg" moment can really be seen as the framing domain, but that doesn't strike me a distinction that is particularly worth making.

Interestingly, my discussion of cooperatives and corporate organization began as a "pro-queer rejection of gay marriage," but I've used it as an opportunity to think about the health care issue, as a starting point in my thinking regarding EconomyFail-2008/09. The economics of open source and Free Software are fascinating, and very real and quite important, and I found myself saying about six months ago that I wished I knew more about economics. Economics was one of those overly quantitative things in college that I just totally avoided because I was a hippie (basically.)

While it could be that my roots are showing, more recently I've come to believe that it's really difficult to understand any social or political phenomena without thinking about the underlying economics. While clearly I have opinions, and I'm not a consummate economic social scientist, I do think that thinking about the economics of a situation is incredibly important.

I've been blogging for a long time. And I'm a writer. And I want to write and publish fiction as a part of my "career," such as it is. As you might imagine these factors make me incredibly interested in the future of publishing of "content," and of the entire nexus of issues that relate to the notion of "new media."

Creative Commons shows us that there has been some crossover between ideas that originated in the "open source" world with "content" (writ large.) The future of publishing and media is a cyborg issue, an ultimately techno-social phenomena, and thinking about the technology. that underpins the new media is really important. And of course, understanding the economic context of the industry that's built around content is crucial.

So what's this all building to? Should I write some sort of monograph on the subject? Is there anyone out there who might want to fund a grad student on to do research on these subjects in a few years?

The problem my work here so far--to my mind--is that while I'm pretty interested in the analysis that I've been able to construct, I'm not terribly satisfied with my background, and with the way that I've been largely unable to cite my intellectual heritage for my ideas and thoughts. I never studied this stuff in school, I have a number of books of criticism, potentially relevant philosophy, and important books in Anthropology (which seems to fit my interests and perspectives pretty well.) I'm pretty good at figuring things out, but I'm acutely aware of a lacking in my work of reference, methodology, and structure. As well as of any sort of empirical practice.

So maybe that's my project for the next year, or the next few months at any rate: increase rigor, read more, consider new texts, pay more attention to citations, and develop some system for doing more empirical work.

We'll see how this goes. I'd certainly appreciate feedback here. Thanks!

On Publishing

I've been thinking about publishing and the publishing industry of late. I'm sure some of it is related to my wanting of a kindle and my resulting thoughts on consolidation, and maybe some small measure of it has to do with the fact that sometimes it easier to think about publishing and the future of publishing than it is to think about ones own creative projects. So be it.

First, "what is there to think about?" you ask? Well, lots of things: I've written about wanting a kindle, and some thoughts about consolidation, and finally some thoughts on digital publishing More recently I've been thinking more about the "work" of publishing and content creation, apart from the changing business models and technological context.

Publishers (of any kind, and their editorial departments), by contemporary convention are responsible for reading through the slush and figuring what's good and what not. Ideally publishers are the stewards of taste, and the people who figure out whats "good" and what people want to read. On some fundamental level, publishers are curators. The second main function of publishers are as the provider and organizer around services. Publishers contract with copy editors, with design and layout people, they get the cover art, they do promotional work, and the million other things it takes to turn a manuscript into a book.

As the traditional publishing model has... deteriorated, I think a lot of people have been interested in figuring out "what happens next?" myself as much as anyone. Having said that, the way in which the traditional publishing model has deteriorated has shaped how we think about what comes next. This makes sense of course, but I want to challenge myself to think about things more broadly (and you, dear friends as well, but I'm sure you've already figured this one out.)

I mean, it's not like the old media died in a day. The blogging phenomena started, and writers/etc. were able to promote their work directly in ways that they hadn't managed to before. Margins on book sales went down, which has cut into promotional budgets (as much as anything). Also, thanks to developments in technology the size of most first runs is much smaller than it used to be. This is probably a good thing, but it also means that the capital investment on new authors and books is much less than it used to be. ...and the end result of this is that we're prone to seeing publishing companies as "Authors Services" companies.

As a model for "what comes next," services for authors is a huge part of what we need from the publishing companies. Centralizing and connecting authors with people who can provide big-picture editing, with people who do copy editing and proof reading, with people who do the cover art and layout of the book itself, and with people who can do the promotional work, getting the book plugged into the distribution channels. These are real needs, that aren't going to evaporate any time soon.

But what about the editorial and curatorial roles of publishers? What about the branding associated with publishing houses? I think there's probably some future for critical discourse in blogs and in digital forums, which will provide some of these functions, but that's not the full answer, and I'm not sure what the full answer is.

As I wrote, earlier, I think figuring out some sort of subscription system to support content creation and distribution. I think having the economic superstructure in place, or at least worked out conceptually is really important before we start working on new technologies, like ebook readers, and digital content distribution channels.

It's an interesting time to be around, that's for sure.