A Preview of the Conference I’ve Been Planning for the Last Year

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I’ve been working on PyDX for over a year. So have my phenomenal co-organizers, Rachel Kelly, Georgia Reh, Melissa Chavez, and Christopher Swenson. This weekend — October 10th and 11th — all of that hard work is going to pay off.

PyDX, by the way, is a community conference for Python programmers in the Pacific Northwest.

Our Schedule Rocks

I’ve already said that I sort of wish I wasn’t organizing PyDX, because I want to attend it. We’re filming all of the talks, in part because I would cry if I didn’t get to hear at least a few. Here are the talks that I’m particularly thrilled about:

  • Melissa Lewis’ keynote (Saturday AM) — I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Meli speak at PyLadies events and she is going to blow away the PyDX crowd.
  • Terian Koscik’s Build a Bot workshop (Saturday AM) — Terian has an impressive array of Twitter bots that do some cool tricks. She inspired me to start working on my own Twitter bot, but I need some help (I’ll probably watch the video of this talk repeatedly).
  • Evan Palmer’s Making MIDI Music with Python talk — I admit that I actually got to hear Evan practice this talk, but I’m still excited for the final version. He’s making music programmatically!

You can see the whole schedule here as a PDF. I’m biased, of course, but I think we’ve got a great line up across the board.

I’m incredibly grateful to our speakers for putting in proposals and agreeing to speak at PyDX. Many are traveling to Portland on their own dime to do so and I’m a little in awe of the group of people we’re bringing together.

A Conference for Everyone

One of our commitments from the start of organizing this thing was to create a welcoming conference where everyone feels comfortable. Every PyDX organizer has been to tech conferences where we’ve felt like we don’t belong and we’re willing to go to extreme lengths to avoid anyone feeling that way this weekend. A lot of these decisions, by the way, didn’t take all that much time or money to implement.

A Dry Conference: Tech conferences tend to be boozefests, even though many people either don’t drink at all or would prefer not to drink around people they know professionally. So we’re not providing alcohol as part of the conference (though attendees are welcome to meet up after hours for drinks if that’s their thing).

A Code of Conduct: I’ve reached the point where I just won’t deal with events and organizations that don’t have a code of conduct (as well as a way to enforce their CoC). It’s a matter of safety.

Scholarships: Our tickets are priced at $100, which isn’t cheap. The value is more than there (especially when you consider we’re providing food, childcare, great speakers, and more) but we are aware that it’s out of reach for many of the people who might benefit from attending PyDX. So we’re offering scholarships. And if you want to sponsor someone else’s scholarship, you can sponsor for any amount through this payment form. A full scholarship costs us $200 to provide, because we offer stipends for travel and other expenses, depending on the recipient’s need.

We had a good business case for diversity, by the way, which helped us explain the importance of these steps when fundraising and marketing. PyCon North America is taking place in Portland in 2016. We’re making sure that anyone who is considering learning Python before that point has an easy way to get started and to join the local community (which desperately needs more programmers).

Plenty of Pythonic Personality

Community conferences are great because they have more personality. When a conference hosts several thousand attendees, everything has to run like a well-oiled machine. But since PyDX is a smaller community conference, we can have a little fun.

Our entire vibe is a weird mix of hipster jokes and Monty Python references. I’m still not sure I’ve found all the jokes on our website, but I did have a great time writing our sponsorship prospectus (I did have to spend some time researching synonyms for ‘artisanal’).

And I’ve dared the community to help us sell out. If we sell out of tickets (and yes, scholarships count), I’m going to get the PyDX logo (the snake at the top of this post!) as a tattoo. I was originally threatening to get that tattoo on my butt. However, since I want to be able to show it off without violating the code of conduct, I’m thinking my leg is a better bet. Last time I checked, we still needed to sell about 40 tickets for me to get that tattoo. Want to make it happen? Buy a ticket (use FRIENDOFPYDX for 10% off) or sponsor a scholarship (same payment form as before). You know you want to see me all inked up.

 

Seriously, How is Spec Work Still a Thing?

Speculative work is a bad bet, both from the point of view of a creative and from that of an entrepreneur. Asking people to do free work (or doing that work yourself) is rarely the most effective way to move a project forward — and yet I keep seeing calls for spec work.

I would like to think most people understand that spec work isn’t an effective option, but that’s clearly not the case. The best I can do is to continue to refuse to do spec work and to try to convince you to take the same stand.

My Time is My Money

As a creative, a request to submit spec work is disheartening. Your ability to land paying work is based on your ability to win a contest. It’s like hearing that every piece of work in your portfolio is worthless: that your body of past work doesn’t actually prove you’re capable of completing a project. Personally, I find such requests irritating at best. I prefer to assume that suggestions I work on spec are attempts to get me to work for free, because I’d rather be angry than to think that a prospective client doesn’t believe I’m capable of the project in question.

Either way, though, spec work is a clear indicator that a prospective client doesn’t value my time. That worries me because my income is directly tied to the number of hours I can spend on paying work. Despite what these clients seem to think, I’m not working just to have something to do during the day — I need to earn a living. There’s a price tag on every hour in my day.

That lack of respect for my time is worse when a prospective client asks you in person or on the phone. I’ll admit to occasionally ignoring emails asking for a trial post or some examples on spec — ignoring an email is easy. But when someone asks me for a trial post during a phone call, the question trips me up: I’ve set aside time out of my day to talk to this person (time I’m not being paid for), and they want even more of that scarce resource? It gets worse when you consider the amount of unpaid work that can go into pitching a project before you can guess whether you’ll get the gig, like writing proposals and query letters.

A request for spec work in the moment forces me to keep my cool on an issue that actually makes me pretty angry, while talking to someone I hope to impress. Worse, it puts me in a position where I look like I don’t want to work on a project right off the bat. I’m willing to dig in my heels now, but there have been times in the past where I needed the work badly enough to back down.

I’ve always regretted those times, though: perhaps one spec project out of every ten has turned into paying work. And that number is only as high as it is because I’m counting those articles I wrote for publications that refused them, but that I was able to sell elsewhere. Stock article sites will take anything, it turns out, but they pay a fraction of what I would have earned if I had spent that time pitching projects that wouldn’t be done on spec.

Spec Work Means Useless Effort From Everyone

As bad as spec work is from a creative’s perspective, though, it’s a bad business practice for clients as well. It’s time-intensive and requires far more coordination than any other approach to handing out client work.

The source of this particular rant was a conversation with a prospective client, where the individual on the other end of the phone made it clear that they were talking to quite a few different bloggers at this point, implying more than ten. The phone call was being used to winnow down the numbers of respondents. That information is irritating, if only because I’m a big believer in the value of time (I categorize more than five interviews for a contract like this as “doing it wrong”). But then the interviewer said that they were asking allthe bloggers they were considering to provided a trial post.

EXCUSE ME?

I can understand asking for two or three bloggers to put together trial posts, so that you can tell the real differences between a few really good writers. I don’t agree with that approach, but I can understand it. But asking ten or more potential contractors to put together free work is ridiculous on multiple levels:

  • On a purely selfish level, asking for that much work means that you have to go through the results. Even ten short blog posts work out to a lot of reading.
  • Your network will likely suffer. You’re going to irritate people who you might want to work with in the future by asking them for free work and then turning them down for the overall project.
  • You’re taking advantage of people who you need to continue to do their best for you long after they turn in that first post. You’re not exactly starting your relationship off with your best foot forward.

Even when a creative will do spec work, a client probably won’t get the ideal end result. Most spec work projects aren’t perfect because there’s no way to get the sort of back-and-forth collaboration that ensures a client gets what they want. Writing a creative brief that addresses every nuance of a project is impossible — but so is answering project questions from a dozen different creatives. As a result, spec work is more like a sketch than a finished project, even though many people will request spec work with the expectation that they’ll get something they can use right away.

What’s the Practical Alternative?

Running a business is always a question of deciding how to most effectively spend your time. If you’re not careful, a creative project can be a crazy time suck that doesn’t get you the results you need (whether you’re doing the work or commissioning it). So, how can creatives and clients work together without wasting time?

The Client Side of the Equation: There are three factors that will tell you whether you’ll get the results you want far more effectively than asking a creative to do the work on spec.

  • Reputation
  • Communication skills
  • Past work
    Seeing a creative’s portfolio should tell you whether that creative is capable of the level and style of work you need. From there, you need to know whether that creative can do the work in a professional manner in terms of timeliness and responsiveness to criticism. You can get that information from talking to the creative’s past clients — send ten quick emails, rather than trying to go through ten speculative projects. Here, I’ll even give you a template to copy:

So and so,
Creative X has a piece of work in her portfolio that she did for your company. I’m considering hiring her for a project of my own and I was hoping to get your opinion of Creative X’s work. Could you answer a few questions for me?
How was Creative X to work with?
Did Creative X complete the project in a timely fashion?
Would you work with Creative X again?
Thanks!

You can usually find the email addresses you need on websites or LinkedIn. You don’t even need to go through the creative you’re checking up on.

The Creative Side of the Equation: Give prospective clients your portfolio. It should stand on its own. If your portfolio isn’t effective, invest the time you would otherwise spend on spec work into improving your portfolio. Given how inexpensive it is to put work up online, consider just launching some projects of your own. Write your own blog, launch your own web app, or design your own line of motivational posters. If that scares you, here are a few other options:

  • Do pro bono work for a cause you believe in.
  • Create stock work for the many marketplaces online (most have lists of types of work that are most in demand).
  • Offer yourself as an intern or apprentice (paid) to a creative already working in the industry who does a high volume of work.

Avoid Spec Work, Please

Spec work is bad for business, whether you’re a creative or a client (or both). Tempting as the idea may be, either as a way to get in with a new client or as a way to see a bunch of work from different creatives, just say ‘no.’ There are always better ways to get what you want.

Investors Always Want to Be The Coolest Kids in the Room

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Investing in an amazing startup is like buying the hot new gadget that’s just come on the market. Just being able to lay down your cash, either for an investment or a gadget is a good social signal, telling the rest of the herd that you’re cool.

But sometimes you get the iPod and sometimes you get the Microsoft Zune. (Here’s a Wikipedia link in case you don’t remember the Zune, the necessity of which may just drive home this particular point.) One tells the world that you have taste and money and one of them tells the world that, well, you bought a gadget that turned out to be not nearly as cool as something else on the market.

Venture Capital Works the Same Way

There’s not really a good way to predict precisely what investment opportunities are going to do better than others: putting your money into a company that has barely an idea of what they may offer customers, let alone any source of revenue, is risky. If it wasn’t risky, after all, we’d all be startup billionaires.

But that means that investors still have to make a decision to invest in this opportunity but to pass on that one.

Investors can weed out some of the options on the table. Details like potential audience size and the relative spending power of that audience can help an investor exclude anyone that can’t make the risk worthwhile. But there’s still far more startups looking for capital than there are investors ready to put money on the line.

That leaves gut instinct to guide an investor through choosing where to invest. Gut instinct, more often than not, takes you to the company you want to see in the world — the seriously cool offer.

The Cool Factor Minimizes Diversity

Choosing companies to invest in based mostly on what seems cool — on what will signal to your friends that you are awesome — limits investments dramatically. What’s cool right now? Well, that depends on your friends. If your friends each have their own bucket load of money and they all live in San Francisco, though, they’re going to define ‘cool’ very specifically. Buying things online is cool, hence all the Bitcoin startups. Being able to pay someone else to deal with the sucky parts of life is cool, hence the appeal of getting things done by Magic. Wine, beer, and whiskey are all cool, hence more startups around those beverages than non-alcoholic drinks.

What’s not cool? How many apps have you seen get funding for simplfying divorces? What about effective logistics management? What about anything for the unexotic underclass?

The lack of diversity isn’t just a question of picking startups with ideas that seem cool to the right people, either. What people are most likely to have ideas that you think are cool? People who are very similar to you across a spectrum of characteristics.

Is There a Solution?

The venture capital system is based, ultimately, on gut instinct. There’s no real way to predict that one startup will succeed or another will fail, which means that investors have to decide based on whatever criteria they choose. Coolness is no better and no worse than any other decision-making tool, especially when someone is deciding how to invest their own money.

Want to see a dramatic uptick in diversity among venture-backed startups? Get investors with a much wider collective definition of cool — more women, more people of color, more parents, more military veterans, and so on. Of coures, there’s a chicken and an egg problem that people who do not already match investors’ ideas of good founders are less likely to have money to invest. That’s a harder problem, though I can see some options (though all come with their own particular problems):

  • Figure out a way to encourage more people to bundle small investments together into startups
  • Add more diverse decision makers at investment firms
  • Use governments and non-profits to come up with investment capital

A more practical option may be to look for more opportunities to opt out of the venture capital system in general. There are plenty of arguments for other strategies: venture capital is likely creating another bubble, it’s creating businesses focused only on exits, and it’s definitely driving price wars.

Bootstrapping, or taking only a small round of investment from friends and family, is the fastest route away from venture capital. It won’t work for all companies — anything needing a big upfront investment in research or equipment is out — but bootstrapping is always worth considering. And the number of ideas that can be bootstrapped today is surprising; 3D printers, marketplaces offering time on expensive equipment, and amazingly cheap software tools have brought down the cost of building anything.

Image by Flickr user Got Credit

Community-Run Conferences: The Most Bang for Your Conference Buck

Unconference Scheduling

I recently had the pleasure of attending Open Source Bridge and noticed several factors that made it an incredibly useful and enjoyable conference to attend. Open Source Bridge is an annual conference that takes place in Portland, Oregon (just like OSCON). It covers a variety of topics related to open source software, also similarly to OSCON. But while a full-access pass to OSCON runs about $2,000, a ticket to Open Source Bridge is $300. I love community-run conferences!

Full disclosure, I received a press pass for Open Source Bridge. (I’ve also received free passes in the past to other conferences I might reference in this post through volunteering, sponsorships, or client relationships.)

Community-run conferences are a much better opportunity for many people than many other types of events. Don’t get me wrong; there’s plenty of value to be had at mega-conferences and other types of events, as well. But considering the lower prices associated with community-run conferences, I always come away feeling like I’ve gotten so much for my money. Here’s why.

Community-Run Conferences Have More Room for Dissenting Opinions

The voices you hear at big conferences are often those speakers who are well-established authorities within their specialties. Obviously, big events need speakers who the widest possible audience will recognize in order to sell tickets. But when you have the ‘official’ opinion up on the stage, it’s harder for a speaker with a dissenting opinion to get on the schedule. The decision may be as simple as "We’re covering that topic already, so why should we have a second speaker discussing the same material?"

But that process does mean that different points of view are automatically excluded. The same doesn’t hold true at a community-run conference. Because a community-run conference almost always looks to the community first to choose speakers, there are more opportunities for diverse opinions:

  • Community-run conferences are generally more welcoming to newer speakers, including those with very different perspectives from the status quo.
  • Community-run conferences don’t have to toe the sort of party lines that a company-run conference must. This might explain why all the major hacker conferences are actually community-run events. Even big sponsors only have a limited impact on what can be said at a community-run conference.
  • Community-run conferences can afford to take risks on niche topics that may only appeal to ten or twenty people out of the entire set of attendees. Big conferences have to fill rooms to make economic sense.
  • Attendees at community-run conferences are more likely to pay for their own tickets out of pocket, so they don’t have to justify a particular event to a manager who controls the company budget for conferences. In turn, that means that community-run conferences can afford to offer more sessions on non-business topics.

The sort of variety that a community-run conference offers is more fun (at least for me). I’m far more likely to wind up at a session covering something I know very little about but that will dramatically change the way I see a particular issue. One of the first sessions I attended at Open Source Bridge, for instance, was on OpenMRS — an open source software project I was entirely unfamiliar with — which offers open source medical record management software. I chose the talk because I’m interested technology and health, but I learned a great deal about the problems international open source projects face, how a project can create software that’s usable in places with limited power and internet access, and even the unexpected localization issues that a hospital in Somalia might have as opposed to a hospital in Kenya. Perhaps more importantly, I got a very different perspective on open source technology as a whole that I can already tell will influence my own work.

Community-Run Conferences Have More Opportunity for New Connections

The argument that smaller conferences are easier to meet people at than their larger counterparts seems counter-intuitive. But large conferences are overwhelming even for the most outgoing people. We’re more likely to find a few people to hang out with at a time, to provide a buffer against the thousands of attendees at a conference like OSCON. It’s a paralysis caused by too many people. Personally, at particularly large conferences, I tend to find a "conference buddy" who I cling to to make sure I don’t get washed away in the sea of humanity.

At smaller conferences, however, I’m more likely to go around and introduce myself. I noticed at Open Source Bridge that I knew a large number of attendees and, as a result, I felt very comfortable and was better able to introduce myself to new people. After all, if I were to encounter a problem, I could always retreat to talk with people who I already knew.

Those connections occur outside of the actual length of the conference, as well. Conference organizers have varying levels of passion for the events they create. On the less passionate end of the spectrum, those individuals who are paid to organize particular conferences probably care about the events they manage, but not to the point where they’re talking about their next conference constantly. In contrast, someone organizing a conference out of sheer passion is going to tell everyone they know about the next event. Even the problems will be more visible, because that organizer’s friends will get to hear every last detail about the argument with the venue staff (whether anyone wants to or not).

The community is more long-lived as a result. Rather than moving on to the next conference at their employer, the organizer of a community-run conference’s next event is likely to be either next year’s conference or a closely related event. The organizers can pull the community along, maintaining excitement throughout the year between conferences.

Community-Run Conferences Have More Room to Experiment with New Improvements

A code of conduct seems like such a simple thing. And, yet, many large conferences of every type seem to struggle with implementing such codes.

Of course, there are community-run conferences without codes of conduct still. But many are more open to the idea of adding on a code of conduct — and seem more willing to adopting an existing, proven code without feeling that they need to develop a new code entirely from scratch. Those communities who aren’t willing to add such codes, well, that information can be valuable, too.

Because a community-run conference has the ability to quickly evolve from event to event, such conferences have more opportunities to experiment with better practices. As a for instance, when attendees registered for this year’s Open Source Bridge, they each had the opportunity to choose between three colors of badge lanyards: blue, yellow, and red.

  • A red lanyard indicates that the wearer does not want their photo taken at all.
  • A yellow lanyard indicates that would-be photographers need to ask before taking the wearer’s photo.
  • A blue lanyard indicates that the wearer is comfortable with having their photograph taken at the conference.

It’s a simple visual cue that can make a world of difference in making a wider variety of attendees comfortable with a particular event. There are a whole host of reasons that people may not wish to be photographed even if they’re at a public event. The default for most events is that everyone who happens to be carrying a camera (which you can read as all of us) can take photos and even recordings of anyone who happens to be at the event. I’m not entirely sure how this became the norm, but it’s not actually a reasonable approach. Event organizers may ask for a bulk permission to photograph or otherwise record attendees, but other attendees don’t usually take any steps to make sure that their photography subjects are comfortable with the situation.

This year’s lanyards aren’t Open Source Bridge’s first experiment in providing visual cues about appropriate behavior. Last year, the conference offered stickers for people to place on their name badges to express photography preferences

I can’t categorically state that lanyards are the best way to communicate these sorts of preferences; the only way to figure out such factors is to run an experiment or two. Community-run events seem more willing to do so, if only because the logistics of testing a new approach with a few hundred attendees is far easier than with a few thousand. Even better, most community-run events are put together by passionate people — and passion is rarely exclusive. If you are willing to do the hard work to bring information about your topic of choice to a wider audience, perhaps you’re also more willing to figure out the mechanics of running inclusive events.

Support Your Local Community-Run Conferences

I’ve always been lucky to be parts of communities where community-run conferences happen regularly. I grew up going to conventions for various bits of science fiction and fantasy fandoms. I used my student status in college to get cheap passes to all sorts of conferences (including a ton of writing events). When I started learning more about technology (especially programming), I went to BarCamps and other unconferences, as well as other small community-run conferences of a more traditional nature.

I’m happy to pay money for these sorts of conferences, but it’s also important to support them in other ways. Even small conferences take a ton of work, especially when they’re first starting up. Helping on even basic tasks like setting up chairs in a conference space is good. Open Source Bridge ran smoothly because around 70 volunteers put in their time. Some of those volunteers worked for months to handle every detail of the conference; some put in a few hours of work in exchange for a free ticket. Either way, they made the conference possible.

Especially if you come from a community that doesn’t have a strong tradition of organizing its own conferences, consider what you can do to volunteer. You never know — you might wind up organizing one of those community-run conferences yourself.

Image by Flickr user Reid Beels

The Value Of A Crap Job

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When talking to entrepreneurs, it seems like everyone has a ‘crap job’ story: the tale of the a job so bad that it forced the person telling it to decide how to get out of a situation she absolutely hated.

I have held a few crap jobs over the years. They all had their own part in driving me away from situations in which I would have to work to someone else’s expectations. I’m not the only one, either: I’ve talked to plenty of entrepreneurs who reached their breaking point in some awful job before they struck out on their own; for some of us, an awful job is bit like a mother bird pushing us out of the nest. We can see the ground coming and we know we have to figure out how to fly before we crash into the ground.

And we do. When I worked a summer wearing a tomato suit, I figured out pretty quickly that not only was a walking tomato a less-than-perfect marketing tool, but also that I needed to develop some serious skills so that my time was too valuable to force me to dress up and walk around a neighborhood.

A Case in Point: Ramon de la Fuente’s Incredibly Bad Boss

Ramon de la Fuente, of Future500.nl had one of those ‘crap’ jobs that did lead him directly to his own endeavors. He notes, “I started a web development company — and in my old job I was a PHP developer.”

But to get to the point where de la Fuente was ready to launch a new business, he had to go through an incredibly painful process first. “I got asked by a friend, to join him in a new job he landed. He knew the owner from a previous business arrangement and he felt it was a good opportunity. I think we both had no idea what we were getting into.”

The new company processed internet payments, primarily for the adult industry — an incredibly lucrative opportunity if handled correctly. That’s why de la Fuente joined the company, along with another tempting opportunity: “…the owner was planning to retire so we would have the opportunity to take over the company within ‘a few years of hard work.’ I’m not sure if the intention was ever there, but needless to say that didn’t happen.”

The job turned out to be problem after problem:

  • The employer was both paranoid and a workaholic. When de la Fuente and the rest of the team were working twelve hours a day, the employer felt comfortable calling them at midnight because “he felt something was off.”
  • The employees working for the company didn’t consider themselves members of a team, because they were constantly in defense-mode to avoid being blamed for any problem.
  • When the company hired an outside consultant to address the morale issues and set up team-building sessions, one of the employees was secretly ordered to record the sessions for the boss.

Talk about a poisonous culture! Luckily, de la Fuente didn’t take the brunt of the pain, because the company’s developers were somewhat insulated from the rest of the team. But the situation couldn’t last: “In the end, the company went down a dead-end path. They chose immediate cash instead of future stability, against our advice at every turn. The owner’s son was put on a fast track to ownership. My friend and I refused to work with him for various reasons, and that was the end of that. I did get the opportunity to fire the people I had worked with (the company was in financial trouble by then) — also not a very happy moment. Quitting was such a freedom… that last month was the longest one ever.”

But it wasn’t the horrible environment that causes de la Fuente the most regret today. It was one particular result of that ‘pass the blame’ culture: “There was no innovation. Anything new was suspect, and for any change there was the possibility that you’d have to go back to some version 3 weeks ago when ‘the numbers started getting weird.’ The less you changed the better.”

As he explains, “What pains me, more than anything, is that I have nothing to show for three years of super hard work besides a little cash. I literally learned nothing new (technically), I wasn’t stimulated to seek out community or better myself in any way. Just production-production-production.

That was the real cost, I think.”

But de la Fuente did learn something important (beyond how not to manage a team): “If you watch something going wrong for long enough, you inevitably start to think ‘I can do better.'” He’s never going to work for a boss again and that decision is going to benefit him and his career in the long run.

Working In the Moment

When you’re in the middle of a crap job, seeing past the awful environment can seem impossible. But if you can’t rise above the situation, at least a little bit, you can wind up stuck for what will feel like eternity.

Part of the problem is that most of us don’t have the option to just walk away from a pay check. Even if there’s a little suffering attached to the money, we all have bills to pay. If you have the luxury of leaving an awful job without having to worry about money, you should do so. For the rest of the world, it’s more practical to think about the options.

First, you need to understand the value of your current situation. Even if it’s highly stressful, there are benefits to pull out of any situation. Start with the easy stuff — the financials. Keep going deeper after that, though. Sit down and list out everything you’re getting out of the work you’re doing that you may be able to leverage later on.

  • Income and benefits: If you’re sticking with a stressful situation, you better be benefitting financially. If you haven’t already, go through the entire list of benefits you get from your employer and make sure you’re taking full advantage of them — if you’re eligible for tuition reimbursement, for instance, make sure you’re taking those classes.
  • New abilities and responsibilities: Whether you have a newly honed ability to keep calm in a crisis or you’re doing the work of two employees, a crap job can turn into some serious resume candy.
  • Opportunities for autonomy: In my experience, crap jobs tend to involve either obsessively controlling managers or managers who give you absolutely no guidance at all. If you’re in the second situation, grab that autonomy with both hands — you can take advantage of that lack of guidance to experiment with your own work and learn more on your employer’s time. And while I would never recommend you do something unethical, you might also be able to come with some other ideas to fill your unobserved time.
  • A clear picture of where you don’t want to work again: Not only are you gaining experience to help you narrow down the employers or customers you’re willing to work with in the future, you’re getting some clear motivation to improve your overall situation so you won’t find yourself back here again.

Even now, when I’m working with a difficult client, I’m a fan of counting my blessings. Running through that sort of information reminds me of why I need to bother sticking with a tough project — and it helped with the crap jobs I’ve had in the past. If the list is short, that’s motivation in and of itself: a short list is a reminder that you need to be spending all the time you can towards improving your current situation.

Next, you need to consider what resources you have to make those improvements. Going home and doing anything else you can think of besides work may be what’s currently keeping you sane, but it’s probably not moving you towards an exit strategy. You’ve got to decide where you want to head and then take action to get there. You may be considering a path that leads away from ever working for someone else again (including spectacularly bad managers) or you maybe more interested in any other job you can get right way. Either way, set aside time to actually take action.

If your crap job includes the problem of an employer who doesn’t respect your time outside of work, that process is a lot harder. Attempting to set new boundaries with an employer can be a way to find yourself without that crap job faster than you were intending to quit. In most states, you can’t collect unemployment insurance if you’re fired for calling in sick too often or for refusing to work overtime. The best advice I can offer is to take advantage of every minute away from work you can; even if you go a little crazy with both work and the effort you’re putting into reaching a point where you can leave your current job, getting out probably needs to be a priority.

Photo Credit: mikecogh

Modify Watches: Making Individualization a Core Principle

We want the best of all worlds: a perfectly designed product with that special customized touch that makes it clear that no one else could possibly have the exact same item. We want to be able to brag that we not only have something just as cool as the kids next door, but that we’ve gone one better and individualized our choice in a way they can’t mimic. I’m not just talking about keeping up with the Joneses, though there may be an inherent element of that, but rather how we telegraph our individuality and values with each part of our lives.

Modify Watches is running a Kickstarter campaign right now that boils down every element of the situation that we all find ourselves in each day — as we get dressed in the morning or make a purchase. The campaign takes Modify’s slick watches and offers a ‘mod-to-order’ version that allows buyers to swap in any image they’d like for the clock face.

Individualization is Driving Our Choices

Individualization isn’t exactly a new trend; it’s something Schwartz has been thinking about for a long time. He notes, “We’ve always thought about custom watches though. If you look at our business plan, I listed out Threadless for year-three goals and Zazzle for year-four. Threadless is all about a design community coming together to create products people love, and Zazzle is about empowering the individual. It took us about four years to finally get there.”

Schwartz picked major players to look up to: both Threadless and Zazzle are pioneers in letting consumers choose exactly what will appear on the products they purchase. Threadless launched in 2000 with a site where users could design and submit their own t-shirt designs. The Threadless community has the opportunity to get in on the action by voting to decide which designs will be printed. Zazzle has an even more extreme business model: the company operates an online platform where anyone can upload designs and have them printed on demand. Individual designers can also create their own stores, letting Zazzle handle all the production, without going through any sort of voting process. Zazzle was founded in 2005. Both companies are constantly growing.

Modify has tapped into the same sort of community love that drive both Threadless and Zazzle. Even without easy individualization options, customers were willing to go to some extreme lengths to make the watches they wanted (including diassembling watches, painting them, and then reassembling them). Part of that is due to the ‘individualization-lite’ nature of the the current iteration of a Modify watch. You can swap out candy-colored watch bands — as well as a few shades that are a little more straight-laced — with one of the many faces that Modify already offers.

“Our goal has always been to let people wear products that they love, that make them feel like they are wearing a unique piece. Modularity (i.e. having our interchangeable faces and straps) enables that,” Schwartz says. “Today you want to wear something conservative? How about a silver face with a black strap? But tomorrow, for $15 more, that can be a funky yellow strap, and a whole new look.”

With that goal in mind, Modify has pursued custom watch orders throughout the past four years. They’ve worked with Google, the WNBA, Nike, and other brands to create watches that matched those organizations’ styles. But, so far, they can’t produce those watches in batches of less than 100.

All or Nothing Works for Individualization

By launching the Mod-to-Order campaign, Modify found a way to raise the money necessary to offer more individualized watches by offering those watches right off the bat. Without the Kickstarter campaign, Mod-to-Order just won’t happen.

Making unique pieces is almost always more expensive and time-intensive than producing copy after copy of the exact same product. The money from the campaign, in addition to directly funding backers’ new watches, will go towards expanding Modify’s space and team in order to actually make the watches, as well as changing the company’s infrastructure to better handle printing and assembly for small numbers.

It’s an all-or-nothing proposition. Sure, Modify will continue to operate as a business, but without funding, they won’t be offering truly customizable watches. Given the value at stake, it seems like a good bet. Not all products will really benefit from individualization, Modify has a lot going for it.

First, as a company, Modify is confident that the demand is there. Schwartz’s experience kept the company pushing toward creating one-off watches: “From day one we have always picked up the phone and talked to customers. Everyone on our team has at least one call per week to learn from fans…All indications were that we should explore one-off customization for individuals and small groups.”

Second, the fashion industry is generally one of the better bets for where people will pay a premium for unique items. It’s incredibly hard to sell an individualized truck engine, but much easier to sell a tailored suit or a personalized scarf. It’s an industry where it’s possible to bet big on individual orders and win.

One-Off isn’t Easy

But while the fashion industry isn’t the hardest place to offer custom products, the process still isn’t all that easy.

For a company that’s just starting out, making one-off products can be the hardest way to make a living. Look at Etsy shops for an example: it’s rare to find an experienced seller who doesn’t focus on making just a few different products over and over again. Such sellers often offer the option to commission special products, but they charge much higher prices for the privilege. Modify is able to avoid this particular problem, because the company has been producing and selling its watches since 2010. They’re changing just one small element — the watch face — in their whole production process.

For Schwartz, the idea of educating buyers on the many options individualization offers is one of the hardest steps. “I thought — and still think — that the biggest difficulty will be growing a channel and building awareness that you can do custom watches with us. Zazzle and Cafepress are amazing companies that allow you to customize anything you want. We need to work extremely hard to be heard and seen.”

The question of marketing individualization requires different answers for each product. While newer production methods, like print-on-demand, have made customization very practical, they still seem foreign to many buyers. As someone who is comfortable buying online and who is willing to try out new sellers, I often have discussions with friends who may want to order what I have but aren’t sure how to navigate the process of designing their own t-shirt or negotiating a commission. Selling on such a model requires educating your prospective customers.

It’s an approach that has its difficulties, but also its rewards: anyone with a Mod-to-Order watch will be an ad for Modify as their friends and family ask about the watch that no one else seems to have. Even better, once someone has placed a single order with the company, coming back is much easier — ordering a dozen custom watches as gifts, for instance, seems like a logical next step, especially when the buyer wants something personal yet easy to buy. Modify’s modular watches work in favor of driving multiple purchases, too: once you have one watch, you want more options to swap bands and faces among.

What watches does Schwartz want to wear himself? He says, “I’m most excited that our Creative Director Ashil will be able to produce all of the watches he’s wanted. Since we started the company four years ago he has designed thousands of watches, and only a few hundred have ever gone to production. The guy is a wizard — whatever he wants to exist, I’ll probably want to wear it.” Of course, Schwartz is also planning to put pictures of his niece and nephews on a watch as well.

A Personal Point

As a side note, I did ask Schwartz why Modify chose to launch their campaign on Kickstarter. He said, “We chose Kickstarter for the brand name. In the end, I’m pretty sure that we would have been better served using Indiegogo.com. Better customer service, for one, and many fewer restrictions.”

I have a personal fascination with the way we choose between the many platforms that are driving new business models. It’s very true that Kickstarter has name-brand power, but it’s also starting to seem like a particularly restrictive platform. It’s a factor I’m following closely and that I expect to write about more soon.

In the Meanwhile

There are just a few days left on Modify Watches’ Kickstarter campaign. Take a look and consider backing it. Perks go far beyond a single watch — including having Modify’s creative director help you create the design you want.

The Blessings of the Coworking Space

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I come from one of those families where missing a sibling’s high school graduation gets you tried for high treason. If we’re talking about missing graduations for graduate degrees, you may face summary execution without a trial. This, and other family obligations, results in a situation where I’m often traveling. Add in travel for business and I feel like I’m always on the road — especially when I need to get work done.

When I’m planning a trip, one of the first steps I take is to search for what coworking spaces are in the area. I’ve worked at a whole slew of coworking spaces now (and a few places that weren’t precisely coworking spaces but would rent me a desk for a few days). I’m a true convert to the church of coworking, particularly on the road.

Coworking’s Appeal on the Road

I used to try to work in hotel rooms when I traveled. I recommend strongly against doing so, even if you’re only planning to work for an hour or two. At the very least, I will always choose to go to a coffee shop to work.

The chairs in the typical hotel room are not comfortable for working at a computer for any length of time, even if you’re lucky enough to get a room with a desk and an office chair. None of it is particularly ergonomic and, if you spend as much time in front of a computer as I do, too much time in a bad chair has a noticeable impact on my mood and ability to work. Add that into the less-than-ideal internet access some hotels offer and it’s clear why I’m out the door as soon as possible.

Coworking spaces offer a lot more than the typical coffee shop and I never feel like I’m squatting. Many spaces have a day rate that’s about equal to the amount of coffee I’d have to buy to work all day at a coffee shop and I don’t wind up jittery as a result of too much caffeine. As an added benefit, I get to meet locals and hear about what they’re working on — an invaluable add-on for someone who’s always looking for story ideas!

The Mix of Ideas

Particularly for those of us who work in such a way that we don’t have to interact with people on a regular basis, coworking spaces are a blessing. They’re a low risk-opportunity to interact with people and ensure that our social skills don’t atrophy. Even for introverts, talking to people is a necessity: without that diversity of connection, it’s harder to form new ideas or pursue new projects.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been sitting in a coworking space and struck up a conversation with someone nearby with an entirely unexpected result. I’ve connected with people who I’ve been able to interview later on, who have needed my skills right when I happened to be handy or who have just wanted to go grab coffee. In terms of the ability to connect with people, I compare working in a coworking space to the best parts of attending a conference: I’m able to meet a bunch of new people with somewhat similar interests in person.

The low-risk aspect of this mix is particularly important to me. If I’m just sitting around and talking shop, I don’t want to deal with anyone who is going to think I’m crazy for not having a day job in the first place. I get enough of those conversations as it is. Anyone working out of a coworking space has similar basic assumptions about work that I do, like not necessarily needing a traditional 9-to-5 to do well. Of course, just because someone is sitting in a coworking space, our opinions won’t be identical — and that’s the fun part. I’m just after avoiding conversations where the entire concept of what I do is foreign.

Why I Don’t Currently Belong to a Coworking Space

You’d think that with all my love for coworking spaces, I’d be a full-time member somewhere. I’m not, currently.

There are a lot of factors in play:

  • Logistics: With all the time I spend traveling or otherwise unable to go into a local coworking space, there is rarely a month where I could get my money’s worth out of membership. If I could pay for some sort of pass or membership card that gave me access to all the different coworking spaces I land at, I would go for it in a heartbeat. Bring me a pay-as-you-go coworking scheme and I’ll be happy.
  • Pickiness: I am exceptionally picky. None of the coworking spaces near me are exactly where I want them to be located, offer precisely the combination of amenities, or are otherwise perfect in every way. This sheer, unadulterated pickiness has lead me to almost start my own coworking space twice.
  • A Good Home Office: I already have a pretty decent set up in my home that I know I work well in. I head out of it on a regular basis and have no problem getting a day pass at a coworking space or working from a coffee shop as needed, but I don’t need a permanent home for my work elsewhere.

I get my coworking fix on a regular basis, even without having a standing membership. I’m willing to guess that sooner or later, I will join up with a coworking space on a more regular basis, but for now, I’m comfortable looking at the many options on the road.

Image by Flickr user Rick Turoczy

How Much Infrastructure Do You Need to Build to Get Where You’re Going?

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You can work without infrastructure. Some people compare it to an acrobat working without a net, but it’s more like an acrobat working without the rings, high wires and other apparati that makes an act more interesting. An acrobat can still do plenty of flips and other tricks without the tools of her trade, but avoiding audience yawns is significantly harder.

The same goes with practically any business. I’m always surprised by what people can do with their bare hands and an awful lot of time. But the moment you give someone the right tools, everything’s easier, quality’s higher and she may even wind up with some spare time. Infrastructure, whether it’s the customer relationship software that makes it easier for you to sell your products or the note-taking app that manages all the little details of your life, improves your ability to get good work done.

It’s hard to argue against infrastructure. But actually getting the right infrastructure isn’t always as simple as making a trip to the corner store.

Custom Infrastructure Versus Off-The-Shelf

One of my problems with finding the right infrastructure is that I can never find exactly what I want — a content management system doesn’t quite match the vision I have or a survey tool doesn’t have enough flexibility in the types of answers it accepts. I get caught up in tweaking a tool (or even building an entirely new tool) so that I can have exactly what I believe I need. I’m not exactly the best at working within the constraints of a system.

It’s a bit of a trap, though: building your own infrastructure can take a lot of the time that you might otherwise invest in actually going out and getting started on what you want to accomplish. Sure, you may be able to turn around and sell that infrastructure to someone else, provided it isn’t too customized or it isn’t the secret sauce that sets you apart from the competition. That route has built plenty of fortunes — think about the oil booms. The people who are guaranteed to turn a major profit when everyone is out looking for oil are the guys selling the drilling equipment. Infrastructure is almost always a good bet.

But it can also slow you down if you’ve got a great idea that you need to get to market. You can distract yourself with perfecting the infrastructure when you should really be pushing full speed ahead, even if you have put together a patchwork approach to managing the whole thing until you get it to market. On the other hand, there are projects that you may pursue that the infrastructure just doesn’t exist for yet. If you can’t buy an off-the-shelf solution and cobbling together existing components won’t get you where you need to be, you have to find a way to balance that problem against actually accomplishing what you’ve set out to do.

How Much Infrastructure Do You Really Need?

It can be tempting to keep looking for the best tools. You can get bogged down in the details and never actually getting around to building the business you’ve planned all this infrastructure for. It’s a dangerous pit to fall into, another temptation that can drag you down.

I get bored with my infrastructure, which may seem like an odd thing to say. But I am excessively fond of playing with new tools: some people collect stamps, while I collect web apps. If I let myself, I could spend all day every day trying out new combinations of tools, without making any progress on the projects that I actually consider important. I’m not the only one, either, at least among the types of people who haunt productivity blogs. The only option in a situation like this is to draw a line in the sand for yourself. You can tweak and test and tinker to a certain point, but no further.

It doesn’t seem like a bad thing in the moment, though. I cannot begin to describe how much fun I get from tinkering with my workflow or building a custom tool. It’s a fast way to lose hours that I meant to spend elsewhere, but it’s easy to justify with the idea that if I can just find the perfect workflow, all of my work will do itself and I can kick back.

But I’ve had to find a stopping point in that eternal search for the perfect approach to work and — if you want to actually get any of your work done, you’ll need to as well. Make it clear to yourself under what circumstances you’ll return to the search: since I tend to write about workflows and related topics fairly regularly, I’ve divided the question into when can I try out a new gadget or app and when can I make major changes to how I work. Respectively, those times are when I can line up a place to publish a review in advance and no more than once a year.

Revisit Your Infrastructure Reasonably Regularly

Google recently announced that Google Reader will be shuttered later this year. As it happens, Google Reader has been a major component of my workflow for years. I have obsessively created an organizational system of all sorts of RSS feeds. I have layers of plugins that automatically act on the items I star and tag. I even have a carefully considered guiding document on what is worthy to make it into the one folder I read religiously every day. The end of Google Reader is going to leave a major hole in my infrastructure.

That’s given me a reason to start going through the many other RSS readers currently on the market. I’m pretty upset about the end of Google Reader, but I’m having some fun trying out all the different alternatives that have evolved since I last really investigated RSS readers. I’d considered the matter a solved problem and haven’t revisited it in years because I knew it was something of a rabbit’s hole I could fall down.

I try to keep from tinkering unless there’s a particular problem with my existing set up. Optimizing the tools I use isn’t enough of a problem to spark an investigation into what other options are out there (unless it’s been a really rough week and I need some cheering up). It seems like waiting until something goes wrong could be dangerous — after all, you could wind up using less advanced tools than the competition. But considering how often web apps disappear or an upgrade removes a feature that I rely on, I’m pretty comfortable with the speed at which I try out new options.

Infrastructure is a Learning Experience

I do make a point of learning about new options long before I try them out, though. I want to have a more limited field of possibilities before I dive into trying out a bunch of things.

But it’s worth going even further when learning about infrastructure at an even deeper level. After all, if you know what makes your tools tick, you may be able to tweak them yourself. There are different layers to this sort of learning: just going a bit deeper than the typical user’s experience in a given piece of software can be great — just being able to install a plugin on top of a given piece of software will put you ahead of the game.

I’m becoming a bigger proponent of learning how to hack on existing software, even if you’re not prepared to devote yourself to learning all about a given programming language. Just knowing a little bit about what is possible and what isn’t can make it easier to find someone already doing all the hard parts — or to gear up to building your own infrastructure yourself. I won’t declare that everyone under the sun needs to learn how to code, design, write or otherwise create, but the more of these skills you have, the more infrastructure you can build or adapt to your own needs.

After all, isn’t having the best possible set of tools the ideal? That we have the right infrastructure to speed up everything that we want to do?

Image by Flickr user Pinguino K

Advertising is Seriously Broken

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Publishing online is a huge business. But it doesn’t work quite the way a lot of people seem to think it does. Whether you’re publishing software, content or something else entirely, you can’t just slap a bunch of ads in and expect to make your fortune.

It’s true that audience and attention are incredibly valuable online. But ad revenues have been on a downward trend for years (both online and off) — see this report from the Guardian. Online advertising revenues aren’t hurting nearly as badly, because there are still plenty of businesses still slowly moving into promoting themselves online. However, every company using advertising in any way is looking to cut costs and get as much bang for their buck as possible. It’s a tough business to get into.

The proposition is even worse when you consider that the grand majority of publishers online are small. The guy developing iOS apps and using ads so that he can release them for free isn’t able to spend a lot of time on optimizing his apps to earn money through advertising; it isn’t his skill set either. The same holds true for the girl publishing a niche blog. Building ad revenues is a very specialized talent and not everyone should expect to be able to do so.

Advertising Isn’t Good Money

There is no doubt that advertising has its place. There are people who do still make fortunes from slapping a whole bunch of Google AdSense spots on to their sites. But such people do a lot of research before hand, targeting specific high paying keywords and ensuring that they have enough traffic hitting their site and clicking on ads to be worthwhile. It’s not nearly impossible, but it does take plenty of work — perhaps more than most of the alternative ways you can make money from publishing.

Furthermore, there will always be companies interested in paying for advertising, provided you can connect them with a big enough audience to make it worthwhile. That’s particularly true because of how online advertising has revolutionized marketing. Fifty years ago, a business couldn’t really tell how effective a particular ad in a particular newspaper actually was. They could ask new customers if an ad had sparked a purchase, but customers forget or even occasionally lie. But with the advent of the web, a company could suddenly tell how many people had clicked on an ad and track their behaviour after doing so. Metrics have suddenly become a crucial part of marketing.

I have a personal love affair with metrics, but even I have some concerns about what they mean for the long term value of advertising. I look at things from the publisher’s side of things mostly, even though I have paid for advertising on occasion.

The rise of metrics have dropped the prices that publishers can demand for advertising. When advertisers can see exactly how many people see each ad and how many of those viewers convert into buyers, they can ask for better prices. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that anyone who has pushed up the prices they demand for advertising over the past century (hey, newspapers!) have to be able to justify those prices — and if they can’t, they need to find a different business model. Prices overall have dropped for ads and they will continue to do so as big companies invest resources in tweaking ads for the maximum possible return on each ad spend. There’s no use crying about it or trying to demand more money; it’s a fact of life for publishers.

At this point, the options on the table are to find a way to either play the advertising game, which starts with building huge audiences and ends with playing the metrics game yourself, or to find a different way to make money. Building your own products, charging for premium publication and pursuing other opportunities mean that any truly committed publisher will never starve. There are even options related to advertising, like affiliate marketing and sponsorship, that provide some opportunities if you think that your audience is the most valuable asset you have.

Advertising’s Cousins Have More Legs

While I wouldn’t want to depend on any one option related to advertising, such as sponsorship, to fully cover the expenses of any project I’m working on, there are some strategies that are related to advertising that are a little more stable — although the still require a great deal of work to reach anything resembling profitability.

Chief among these is sponsorship. You can draw a line between advertising and sponsorship because the relationship between the sponsor and your audience is usually very different. In both cases, someone wants to reach your audience. In the case of advertising, the strategy is usually to slap an ad up on the site somewhere that readers have to see it. The advertiser then hopes really hard that viewers will click on the ad. However, in the case of sponsorship, there’s a little more thought. If you’re doing it right, the publisher and the sponsor have a serious discussion about what content, activities or other connection will benefit and motivate the audience to take action.

A great sponsor may enable a publisher to make premium content available for free or to create some content she wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. Or a sponsor may come up with an entirely different approach to reaching an audience. But there has to be a benefit present for the audience. Consider this series of posts about Lanai on Plum Deluxe: it’s obviously noted as sponsored content (paid for by the Lanai Visitors Bureau), but the articles give real glimpses in to a visit taken to Lanai by the author. It’s personal and connects with the reader, showing what a vacation to Lanai is like without being a flat-out sales pitch the way that an ad would be.

There are plenty of other types of partnerships between publishers and organizations who want to reach the audiences those publishers have already connected with. They all are more expensive, both in time and money, for the company buying access, but they tend to have much better payoffs as well. Such approaches require skill on the part of the publisher, but it’s not such a specialized question as building ad revenues is.

To give credit where credit is due, thanks to Andy Hayes, the publisher of Plum Deluxe not only for providing me with a great example of sponsorship but also for helping me talk through my thoughts on the relationship between advertising and sponsorship. You can see our conversation on Storify.

Is Advertising Fixable?

I don’t see an easy solution for making advertising a more viable way to make money for publishers. There’s not really a need to invest in doing so, either: there are plenty of ways to make money as a publisher that don’t have as many potential pitfalls as advertising.

Consider exactly what you’re selling when you sell advertising on your website or app or whatever else you might be publishing. You’re selling access to your audience. It’s true that access is incredibly valuable, but you’re putting it in the hands of someone who may not know the people in your audience the way you do. They could alienate your audience in the time it takes to post a new ad if you aren’t closely engaged in the process.

Even if you do your best to make sure that you find advertisers and ads that fit closely with your audience’s beliefs and needs, you can damage your own connection to your audience by accepting advertising. It’s not out of the question that an audience member could come to the conclusion that you’re trying to sell them out, just based on your acceptance of advertising. Publishers have struggled with balancing the needs of their audiences and those of their advertisers for years. It’s never been easy, but audiences demand more and more transparency every day, making it harder to justify making money through advertising over alternatives like flat out selling whatever you’re publishing.

Image by Flickr user Annaliese Moyer

WordPress, the GPL and a Business Nightmare

I use WordPress on every site I own. I ask clients to use WordPress on their sites (and I tend to avoid even high-paying clients who don’t). I even speak at WordCamps — I’m the one yelling about content strategy to a room full of non-writers every few months.

But last week, I found myself looking at other content management systems, wondering how hard it will be to switch away from WordPress. That’s ‘will,’ not ‘would’ because I’ve committed myself to slowly migrating away from the platform unless something major changes. The issue isn’t so drastic that I’ll migrate every single site I own in the next month — the process may very well take years at the speed at which I move.

The Problem with GPL

WordPress was my introduction to open source on a practical level. I’d encountered Linux and some other open source software in high school and college, but I never used any open source software on a long-term basis or to the point that I needed to figure out what I could legally do with it before WordPress.

As it happens, what we can do with WordPress is a little more complicated than it might otherwise be. That’s due to the Gnu General Public License (more commonly known as the GPL). If you aren’t familiar with the GPL, consider it to be the equivalent of any agreement you have to click through to use a piece of software. The main difference is that, like all open source licenses, the GPL lays out the ability to pass a piece of software along, change it and otherwise interact with it without violating the creator’s copyright. Where the GPL differs from some other open source licenses is that it is categorized as a Copyleft license. I’m not going to go into depth on the differences between types of licenses, but I will include a short working definition.

When a developer modifies a piece of software that was originally licensed under the GPL and distributes it, the result (known as a derivative work) must also be released under the GPL. The same is true of ‘linking’ to GPL code, which is generally interpreted to include writing plugins for an existing piece of software. Stick a pin in that last part — we’ll be coming back to it.

WordPress is released under the GPL. The way that the WordPress Foundation interprets the GPL, plugins and themes for WordPress all automatically inherit the GPL, including pieces that aren’t actually code. For instance, if a specific photo is used as a background in a theme, it has to be released under the GPL with the rest of the theme.

You’ll notice that I keep using the word ‘interpret.’ That’s because there’s no case law for the GPL — it’s never been fully legally tested. Almost every case that has gone to court in the U.S. has been settled (the main exception is one of a series of lawsuits filed on behalf of BusyBox). Richard Stallman wrote the original version and let it loose on the world. Later iterations have been created with advice from legal experts. At the most basic level, though, the GPL is a cool idea dreamed up by a computer nerd. It will take a series of judges’ ruling to set how the license is interpreted in stone. In the meanwhile, some developers define ‘linking’ as including an API call while others limit it to using other code in such a way that it’s included in the code of the new program. There are similar differences in just how to define a ‘derivative work.’

This alone is problematic for anyone running a business based on WordPress, or any other software licensed under the GPL. In theory, any day now, a case could go to court about how to interpret the GPL and completely change everything. It’s difficult to predict end results of such a ruling: I could see a situation in which I might suddenly need to make software that I’ve customized for my business available to the entire world. Software that I use that might be improperly licensed could disappear or stop working overnight. I could even imagine a situation in which software under the GPL needed to be re-licensed under a new license. It’s not the end of the world, but no small business owner wants to suddenly be informed that she needs to change something about the platform she runs her business on.

Furthermore, the GPL spreads in a particularly viral manner. It is written so that it drags new software into an open source license kicking and screaming. Just about anything related to a project licensed under the GPL winds up with the same license, because you can’t connect a piece of software licensed under the GPL to one that isn’t. It’s not the worst open source license, in terms of turning everything it touches into open source, but it’s up there.

A lot of developers (both individuals and companies) try to get around the problem by choosing not to release their work. Google, for instance, relies on a ton of open source code that the company’s engineers have tweaked. But because the code itself is not distributed — you only get the search results from Google Search, not an actual piece of software — Google isn’t required to release its source code.

But for companies smaller than Google, things aren’t so simple. Consider a freelance developer who makes his living customizing themes for WordPress for his clients. The typical interpretation is that when that customized theme is swapped for money, it’s been publicly distributed — even though the freelancer only made one copy, for an individual client.

We’re getting too far down the rabbit hole of open source licenses here, but I want to impress on you that this is not just complicated: it’s completely open to interpretation. The standard practice is to follow the interpretation of whatever individual or organization manages a given open source project, which is where the problem with WordPress lies.

The WordPress Foundation’s Interpretation

The WordPress Foundation has gotten into some fairly public arguments with theme and plugin developers over how to appropriately license their work. The current conundrum focuses on developers who sell their work through ThemeForest. ThemeForest licenses all code for WordPress themes and plugins under the GPL automatically, but does not follow the interpretation that images, CSS files and other creative assets must also be licensed under the GPL. Let me be clear: this is a generally accepted interpretation that is considered legal under the GPL. However, the WordPress Foundation takes a differing (and also legal) interpretation of the GPL, requiring that those creative assets share the license of the theme or plugin as a whole. As a result, the WordPress Foundation considers anyone selling their work through ThemeForest to be violating the WordPress license.

As a result, the WordPress Foundation will not allow those developers and designers who sell their work on ThemeForest (or otherwise do not comply with the WordPress Foundation’s interpretation of the GPL) to speak at or sponsor WordCamps. If you’re not familiar with WordCamps, they are the conferences that take place in cities all over the world, providing a face-to-face forum for the WordPress community. I’ve been involved with several (volunteering, speaking, etc.) and consider them an important part of the WordPress learning process. Jake Caputo, who has also been involved with numerous WordCamps, wrote a post last week about being informed that his involvment was no longer welcome.

There are a number of major issues with how the entire situation has been handled.

  • First, and perhaps most importantly, excluding members of the community over an equally valid interpretation of a legal document has to be considered problematic. This is the sort of action that leads to major splits in an open source community, as well as makes users less willing to rely on a piece of software’s stability.
  • ThemeForest’s users are being punished for something that is out of their control. They don’t set the licensing policy. Matt Mullenweg (the guy who initially developed WordPress and founded the WordPress Foundation) has repeatedly suggested that developers and designers move to other marketplaces that comply with the WordPress Foundation’s interpretation of the GPL. But there isn’t another WordPress theme marketplace with a similar level of transactions. Plenty of people make full-time livings through ThemeForest, but I don’t know of any WordPress developer making a full-time income by offering their work through another marketplace. (There are several who do very well offering themes and plugins independently, but many developers in this category have had their own arguments with the WordPress Foundation over the GPL.) It’s nice to say that “forgo[ing] profits for principles” is the right move, as Mullenweg responded to Jake Caputo, but we’re talking about putting food on the table in an entirely legal way.
  • Communication between the WordPress Foundation and the owners of ThemeForest has been demonstrably poor. Collis Ta’eed, the founder of ThemeForest, has written up a description of how the company has attempted to balance the WordPress Foundation’s interpretation and a need to protect its sellers. He makes it clear that he’d felt that the two organizations had opened up lines of communication and were working to find a solution, when the WordPress Foundation chose to again enforce rules about noncompliant speakers.
  • The overlap between the WordPress Foundation and Automattic (also founded by Mullenweg and the owner of WordPress.com) continues to be exceptionally blurry. During my time helping to organize a WordCamp, I saw firsthand that it’s not always clear who you’re talking to — whether they’re paid by the for-profit or the non-profit. That’s a dangerous way to run two very different organizations with two different goals. Whether or not it’s the case, that lack of distinction makes it seem like the WordPress Foundation has a problem with anyone making money from WordPress — except for Automattic.
  • The WordPress Foundation has failed to address the underlying reasons that ThemeForest uses a split license. On a fundamental level, it’s very difficult to distribute software under the GPL and still charge for it, because, legally, anyone can do just about anything with it (including turning around and giving it to someone else free of charge). Yes, that’s the reality of doing business with WordPress, but the ThemeForest license offers a middle ground that has resulted in developers and designers who would have otherwise worked on non-WordPress projects. Offering a little leeway creates a far more vibrant community overall.
  • Lastly, this isn’t nearly the first time that the WordPress Foundation has found itself in this position. There’s a certain appearance that the organization is attacking underdog developers at this point. I hate to wish a court case on anyone, but it’s reached the point where I want to see the GPL go to court and receive a ruling, preferably several times over, so that there’s a set of case law based on legal judgments on the situation.

All of this adds up to a platform that I am less and less comfortable using in my business. I can’t recommend WordPress in good conscience to my clients right now, particularly because I usually add a suggestion to go to ThemeForest to pick up a design. I am reluctant to commit too many of my own resources to it because I don’t agree with the principles that are being promoted. I guess, in a way, that makes me willing to forego profit, just as Mullenweg suggests.

There are plenty of other content management systems out there. I’d rather do business with an organization that I know will be able to continue offering their product under the same rules a year from now, that goes out of its way to be easy to work with and that is willing to discuss problems in a rational way. I run my business with respect for the freelancers and other individuals I deal with; I want to be sure that the people I depend on to earn a living get treated right by everyone else, too.

A Personal Connection to Envato

Obviously, if I’m willing to write this long of an article about the arcane nature of open source software, I probably have a horse in the race. In fact, I have several. ThemeForest is owned by Envato, a company that I am proud to have worked with for several years. I’ve written for FreelanceSwitch for four years, as of next week, as well as for several other Envato-owned sites.

I haven’t bothered to ask the WordPress Foundation if taking Envato’s money disqualifies me from speaking at WordCamps. Since I don’t sell any themes or plugins through ThemeForest, I should technically be in the clear, even though I get payments from the same source as people who have been informed that they’re not welcome to speak.

But I’m choosing not to speak at such events for the near future. I haven’t decided if I’ll refrain from attending entirely, though I’m seriously considering it. My reasons for doing so come in two parts. First, there are some great people I’ve had the opportunity to work with who are effectively banned from WordCamps and I’d rather not be a part of a community that chooses to think in terms of excluding those individuals. Second, the only reason that I don’t sell anything on ThemeForest is because I don’t have anything to sell. I’m bad at development and while I’m working on getting better, I’m not focusing on learning PHP. ThemeForest is an incredibly useful marketplace for both developers and designers, though, and I would be proud to be a seller there if I ever get decent enough.

I still think WordPress is a good platform and I expect to watch it thrive in the future. It’s far too late to even consider a different license for WordPress and I wouldn’t expect the WordPress Foundation to attempt it. Unless there’s a change in how the license is enforced, however, I’m taking this situation as a sign that I need to at least consider moving on.

Image by Flickr user Michael Dorausch