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.

Anyone Can Compete On Price

I get twitchy whenever I hear someone suggest that they should drop their prices to land more clients. Part of that is due to the reality that make creative professionals have a hard time remembering the value of their own work. If you don’t put a value on how you spend your time, how are you ever going to convince someone else to give you money in return for those hours?

But there’s an underlying issue that may be a little harder to resolve: competing on price is bad for business.

There are a few industries in which there is no alternative to competing on price. But the truth is that anyone can compete on price. New entrants to the market can find just as many ways to cut costs as people who have been in business for years — and may have the added advantage of not knowing about certain expenses when setting their prices. Someone who can afford to take a loss, at least in the short term, always has the advantage over those competitors who can’t afford to do so.

That’s dangerous: cutting what you offer to the bone just to get your prices down can put you in a dangerous place, particularly if you’re selling your own creativity in one way or another. There are alternatives, however, to competing on cost: adding value, branding your work, and other strategies can keep you competitive without forcing you to constantly be selling just to keep your head above water.

Should You Touch The Code On Your Blog?

Looking under the hood on a website can be intimidating, especially if your creative talents don’t lie in that particular direction. Just the same, I consider tinkering with the code for my website to be one of the best decisions I’ve made for my business.

To be clear, I don’t mean building my own website with one of those ‘automatic website builders’ that certain web hosts offer. I mean that I know a little about what makes my content management system (currently WordPress) tick, as well as a bit about HTML and CSS — the parts that drive the design of the site. As a business owner, it’s tempting to try to do everything myself, but that’s not actually a good decision. I know better than to rely on my own coding skills when it comes to putting together a site. Rather, my main goal is to know enough to be an active part of the process.

I like to compare my level of coding knowledge to my level of plumbing knowledge: I can’t fix a major leak, but I can at least deal with a dripping faucet. I have enough general knowledge that I can handle minor fixes on my own, especially if I can Google for a tip or a tutorial. Perhaps more importantly, I know enough that neither plumbing nor web design jargon sounds like a different language to me. It’s a lot harder for someone to sell me something I don’t need or take advantage of me. If only for that reason, I definitely encourage improving your technical literacy whenever possible — even if you don’t need to use it directly.

Do We Need an Algorithm Beat?

The idea of the beat reporter is alive and well, even if the institutions that sparked it aren’t doing so well. Bloggers — especially those who come from a more traditional journalism background — tend to focus very closely on specific topics if they want to do well. They are beat reporters, of a sort, just as many publications train reporters to be experts in a particular niche.

But the beats that may be crucial in today’s world aren’t quite the same ones that most general interest publications rely on. Sure, I still need to read what the health, real estate, and crime beat reporters produce.

The idea, however, that technology is entirely separate from everything else and can be covered by just one beat reporter is severely outdated. First of all, divorcing the relevant technology from topics like business and health removes it from the context that readers need to understand the topics. Technology is integrated into every part of our lives; even someone who doesn’t use technology personally brushes up against it every time she leaves her house.

Second, however, there are certain issues related to technology that, when bundled together, make an overwhelming mess for a reporter. Having the same person covering privacy issues and reviewing the latest hardware specs just doesn’t make sense. Nick Diakopoulos makes a very good argument for creating beat reporter positions that cover algorithms specifically. Personally, I’d love to see a privacy beat.

How these changing beats may play out is more a question of resources at individual publications than pure journalistic idealism but hopefully editors will take note of Diakopoulos’ article and consider who should really be covering what in their newsrooms.

Are Tools Like Zapier the Same as Programming?

7413565310_f75199807d_o

Truly amazing things can happen when you can pair one app with another, integrating the results to get something better.

But the actual integration process slows down the speed at which such mashups can be rolled out — or at least it did. While there are still plenty of apps that require developers to write custom integrations for each set of apps they want to pair together, web-app automation services like IFTTT and Zapier make it possible to come up with new integrations on the fly, without writing a line of new code.

Personally, I find these services to be the greatest thing since sliced bread. While I know the basics of writing code, I’m still at the point where I have to write out exactly what I want to happen in fairly specific detail. That usually happens to be in the format that if this one thing happens, I want this other thing over there to happen next. As it happens, IFTTT stands for ‘If This Then That’ — the short form to the average approach to deciding what simple computer programs will do.

Are IFTTT, Zapier and Tools Like Them Enabling a New Type of Programmer?

As I started outlining this post, I had an incredibly difficult time figuring out just what these tools are called: “web-app automation service” seems to get the most use across various technology blogs, but it’s a mouthful. We just don’t seem to have the right words to clearly describe what’s going on when you log into one of these sites.

Part of the problem is that while the various web-app automation services seem to be doing something novel, the reality is that what’s on offer is more a matter of user interfaces than anything else. Every single app that IFTTT and Zapier offer connections for has some sort of API — an interface that a developer can use to make use of the app in her own programs. That API might be available for free or it might have a price tag attached, but it has to be already present for a web-app automation service to tap into it.

Furthermore, if you look at the actions you can take with a given app through a tool like IFTTT and you’re also willing to dig through that same app’s API documentation, you’ll find that the actions you can take using that app are basically identical whether you’ve got an automation tool acting as an interface or if you’re willing to write some code.

If you’re getting the same results a programmer would, using the same tools (albeit with a little something special added on), are you a programmer automatically?

The question of Zapier’s place in technology today is particularly interesting because Zapier has been on a big push to add new apps to the many it already integrates. The company added a new app every day in February. Last month, Zapier announced an improved developer platform, making it easier for developers to connect their apps up to the platform. (I may have taken the announcement as a cue to nag a few developers I know about why they should invest some time in improving their integrations.)

Good Programmers Use Time-Saving Tools, Right?

It’s tempting to dismiss web-app automation services as not meeting the ill-defined standards of exactly what counts as programming. But we shouldn’t be too quick to judge.

Programmers are well-known for a willingness to embrace all sorts of tools to make their work easier. Consider frameworks that sit on top of programming languages to speed up development dramatically. Ruby on Rails, for instance, has become a favorite of new programmers because it hides a lot of the more complicated aspects of programming under some friendlier tools. As a result, new programmers can build websites and apps much faster with Ruby on Rails than if they were to use Ruby on its own.

While I have heard some grumbling from old school programmers that anyone who uses a development framework isn’t a ‘real’ coder, I’m pretty sure that the same people find plenty of other ways to exclude as many people as possible from the little club they’ve built for themselves. I’m okay with being picky about the development frameworks you personally want to work with, but there’s no doubt in my mind that using such a framework is definitely programming.

Tools like Zapier and IFTTT aren’t much different than frameworks: the user still has to invest plenty of time into figuring out what they want as an end result (unless they’re willing to stick to premade recipes). Even those premade recipes, however, can feel a bit like templates that you should tweak to your own uses, just like every programming tutorial. Sure, using a web-app automation service isn’t a particularly robust approach to programming, but it requires enough of the same mindset that we should take it seriously.

The Real Gateway to Programming

I have plenty of friends and acquaintances who are working on the question of how to get kids interested in programming. One of the favorite approaches seems to involve getting kids playing games that incorporate aspects of programming. But while getting kids to play video games may be a logical strategy, taking a more basic approach may have more value.

Just because an individual happens to be young doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have problems in her life that she wants to solve: I can’t even count the number of times I get calls from younger friends and family members asking how to do something technical (I might be considered technically savvy in some circles). And, sometimes, I have to tell them that there isn’t currently a tool to accomplish exactly the results they’re after. Suggesting that they learn to program and build their own solution rarely goes over well.

But what if there was a web-app automation service that focused on the tools that younger users rely on? How hard would it be to convince kids to sign up for the service? Finding the apps to include certainly wouldn’t be a problem: Snapchat is pretty popular, but the various educational apps that teachers now use to assign and manage homework. Most of these apps already have APIs in place, even if those APIs aren’t widely advertised. With the right connections in place, I’m certain that it would be easy enough to get younger users to use such a service.

Having to start thinking in that if-this-then-that format provides a certain entryway into a programming mindset — one that would making teaching the process of writing code much easier. Even better, once kids start using such a service, they’re almost certainly going to come up with more ideas for combining pieces of technology, some of which will require more advanced programming skills. Making the leap just isn’t that hard at that point, especially in comparison to the change between thinking that you’re doing something just for fun and suddenly needing to shift to be able to think of that same process as work.

These Tricks Aren’t Just for Kids

Clearly I’m a big fan of web-app automation services (even if that name makes me cringe every time I type it). At the very least, I see them as a way to minimize copying and pasting information from one computer window to another. But I also see them as an amazing opportunity for how businesses can move forward.

We don’t have to have big behemoth software packages that all come from the same company in order to guarantee our tools work together seamlessly. We have more options (or at least will when tools like Zapier are a normal part of our day-to-day processes). We have the freedom to use the best application for a particular task, no matter who makes it, as long as the developer in question has built an API — and that’s fairly standard practice, even when an application doesn’t advertise its API as a feature. Just go through the web-based apps you already use and check for the word API. It’s usually down in the footer of the front page.

But these tools also do good things for how we think about business problems. We’re moving into an age where every business generates absurdly large amounts of data. Just being able to move that data around efficiently makes a web-app automation service valuable. But getting us in the mindset of thinking about how we can use that data in different contexts — if I take in this piece of information here, how can I push it out over there? — improves our ability to run our businesses.

Not everyone needs to know how to write code to run a successful business, but I would argue that every entrepreneur does need to understand at least the basics of programming. In particular, knowing what’s possible is crucial, whether tools already exist with a given capability or if you’ll have to go out and find someone to put together the code. If you don’t have the right mindset, you’ll slip behind the competition as they find and build new tools. But if you can just write simple statements of what should happen after a certain triggering action, you have the skills to team up with an experienced programmer to create the application that will revolutionize your industry. Beyond that, you don’t need much more than a good idea.

Image by Flickr user Thomas Amberg

Our Tools Dictate the Way We Think

The tools we use for writing change what we have to say. While most of the time I write in front of a computer, I also spend a lot of time writing long hand.

I use a fountain pen and a legal pad — an echo, perhaps, of reading about an author who did just that when I was still in high school. I’ve had an obsession with fountain pens for longer than that. I remember my dad letting me use his pen when I was you — a massive pen that I could barely write with, let alone write in cursive.

But, obsessions aside, I’ve noticed some major differences between the words I write with a pen and those I write on a computer. The self-editing process is one of the most obvious changes: on a computer, it’s practical to keep going back to the previous line and making changes. I shape my sentences, add transitions, and even eliminate repeated words all through the process of writing.

Making changes when writing by hand is far more difficult, so I tend to just write. I tell myself that when I type up a particular project I can edit it then. It’s more of an ideal way to write — it’s easier to get into the flow of the process and press on.

I like to say that I don’t get writer’s block. Wanting to eat keeps me motivated and moving forward. The reality is, of course, more complicated: I can’t afford writer’s block, so I build approaches into my day that keep my brain rolling. I write on my legal pads first, getting myself in the flow of writing. I essentially prime the pump so there are already words coming out before I start working on the computer. I rarely handwrite anything for a client, but getting to work on something I enjoy first seems to help even more, so I don’t worry about my topic first thing.

Part of the reason I keep client work to the computer is that I’ve noticed some key differences between my style on paper and on screen. I’m more willing to describe my own experiences away from the screen — a part of me feels that paper is less judgmental. But even my sentence structure varies: when I write on a computer, my sad addiction to parentheticals and appositives becomes evident. On paper, I use them much less often. I prefer simple sentence structures, perhaps because they are easier to construct when you don’t have the option of self-editing. I do have a tendency towards colons when writing by hand.

Word choice is another place where my writing diverges, though perhaps not for the reasons you think. When I work on my computer, I have a piece of software called TextExpander turned on. There are certain words and phrases that I don’t want to appear in my writing, mostly because I overuse them. When I type those words, TextExpander ‘expands’ them into glaring reminders to avoid using those verboten word choices. Of course, there is no way to automatically delete words when writing by hand. I do sometimes notice that I’m spelling out a word that Text Expander will take me to task on. I’ve got an anti-authority streak a mile wide, so I generally take pleasure in writing those words all the way out

Science has demonstrated that we think differently with a pen in our hands than with our fingers on a keyboard. That’s why students with learning disabilities, like dyslexia, are often handed a laptop. One is not better than the other — they’re just different options. And for anyone doing creative work, having those options is useful. When you re trying to create and there’s a problem, having a way to entirely switch the way you think about your work — perhaps just by taking a few steps — is invaluable.

I see a tendency in many fields to teach only computer-based skills — usually because working through a computer is so much faster. But the underlying skills are valuable. Even in computer programming, being able to step back and write out some pseudo-code can be a useful skill. Sink some time into doing your work the old hard way. You may be surprised by the results.

Hemingway’s Automated Approach to Editing

Hemingway is a new writing app that helps writers improve their craft. You can write directly in the app (though doing so wouldn’t be my first choice), but it really shines during the editing process.

When you put some text into Hemingway, the app automatically highlights problem areas. The process is subjective, of course, but it focuses on cleaner writing, along the lines of Ernest Hemingway’s short sentence structure and crisp prose. Even if that doesn’t match your own style as a writer, the app can be useful.

It specifically highlights the following:

  • Passive voice
  • Adverbs
  • Complex words
  • Sentences that the app deems hard to read (which are differentiated from)
  • Sentences that the app deems very hard to read

I’ve already gotten into a few arguments with Hemingway: while I am perfectly happy to see the passive voice eliminated like the blight it is, I use more complex words and sentence structures than the app approves of. Some of those sentences can be improved, no doubt. But Hemingway is an automated editing tool — Papa doesn’t always know best. Sometimes an extended sentence length and an abundance of commas don’t indicate a poorly written sentence. Hemingway is tripped up by anything its programming doesn’t expect (like a proper name ending in ‘ly).

Hemingway’s ability to estimate a reading grade level is a useful feature. I wish more tools existed for measuring the usefulness of writing, especially for the web. We write for a wide variety of audiences and being aware of our reach is useful.

However, Hemingway would be far more useful integrated into a more established writing tool. It’s meant for editing, not writing. If you want to be sure you won’t accidentally lose your work, you need to copy and paste text into the app. Then, once you’ve made your edits, you need to add them to the central version of your work. Those added steps mean I won’t use Hemingway as a day-to-day tool.

Review: Be Awesome at Online Business

I picked up Be Awesome at Online Business during one of those Black Friday / Cyber Monday / Whatever Day of the Week sales a couple of months ago. While it puts a heavy emphasis on the design aspects of online business, it’s a good introductory text for people who are thinking of moving into the online space.

Paul Jarvis, the author, lays out his purpose for creating the book right off the bat: he’s a web designer who wants his clients to really get the concepts behind building an online business. It’s a noble and sensible goal and I have a feeling I’m going to use his book for precisely that purpose. It’s hard to explain approaches both web design and content marketing if a prospective client doesn’t understand the underlying mechanisms by which businesses need to operate to work well online.

If you’re a creative professional helping clients define their online presence in any way, “Be Awesome at Online Business” may be an effective tool for you. You likely know most of the topics the book describes if you’re already working with that audience, but you won’t have to rehash every concept with each new client you work with.

I’d also like to pop in a push for Everything I Know, one of Jarvis’ other books. You might shelve “Everything I Know” with the manifestos, but it’s got some great messages that entrepreneurs need to hear on a regular basis. Most importantly, we have to keep making things and putting them out in the world. We have to make the things that are truly ours and and bring some personality to the game. It’s a reminder that I know I need regularly, and if you’re in the same boat, “Everything I Know” is a fast read that will drive the message home again for you.

The Family Business Advantage Puts Some Entrepreneurs Ahead of the Game

69122_6581

I started freelancing in high school. Even though I didn’t really know it at the time, I’d started my own business at a time when most of my peers were applying for whatever jobs would work around their school schedules. Some how this experience has translated into an assumption that I know something about how to help younger entrepreneurs get a start.

I’m not really an expert in how to get kids to start their own businesses, but I know that I had a clear advantage: I surrounded by entrepreneurs from the day that I was born. The grand majority of my family run their own businesses. That translated into a very different approach to earning money than most of my friends had. I never automatically assumed that I needed to find a job to put money in my pocket. Part of that approach was a result of a long progressions of helping out with various family businesses as needed. There was always a relative who needed someone to handle a big data entry project or hand out flyers. — which may have lead directly to freelancing as an easy starting point.

One of the biggest advantages I’ve had in life comes from growing up around entrepreneurs. It’s an experience that business school just can’t replicate.

The Advantage of Growing Up in a Family Business

I’ve talked about the situation with other business owners and coming from a family of business owners does seem to normalize the idea of entrepreneurship, at the very least. Ashley Brooks had some seriously similar experiences. She comes from a similarly entrepreneurial background: “My grandpa started his own business and passed it on to two of my uncles; I have an aunt and uncle who own their own print shop; another uncle left his day job to start his own insurance company; and I have an aunt who’s done some freelance editing herself. People in my family just didn’t seem to do well with day jobs, and they were all extremely successful at their own endeavors. I never questioned that I could do it that way too.”

That last bit echoes one of my experiences. After spending enough time with entrepreneurs, especially those who you are related to, it becomes a lot harder to land and hold one of those day jobs that I’ve heard so much about. Part of it is sheer practicality: it’s hard to get results from resumes with big employment gaps or with a work history where your last name matches the sign on the door. But part of it is that, especially these days, it gets a lot harder to accept that you’ve got to do all your work between 9 and 5 or the whole world will fall apart. If I decide to do my work between 10 and 7, nothing truly dramatic is going to happen, but a lot of jobs assume otherwise.

Recognizing that there are options beyond that 9-to-5 grind can be incredibly difficult if you haven’t seen the alternatives in action. I’m a pain, constantly trying to help certain friends strike out on their own, but when I’m the only person who those friends know with a business of her own, I’m far less persuasive. Having people in your circle of friends and family who actually show that there’s not just one way to make a living is almost a necessity for someone who really wants to become an entrepreneur.

The Advantage of Not Having to Explain Yourself

One of the reasons that entrepreneurship is at least a little easier for someone who grew up in a family business or in a family of entrepreneurs is because those family members will generally be supportive of the idea of someone else in the family striking out on her own. Starting a new business is incredibly difficult. Starting one while listening to your family tell you that you’re crazy is much harder.

Only two of my family members have ever questioned my ability to launch my own business. It’s no coincidence that both of those family members have held a succession of day jobs and aren’t entrepreneurs themselves.

Don’t worry, though: I do get plenty of those concerned calls from relatives wanting to check up on particular aspects of how I run my business. My family doesn’t leave me concern-deprived, by any means. But, in addition to that concern, I get a bit of a pass when it comes to prioritizing my work over other parts of my life. Sure, the whole family would love to spend more time together — but most of us are realistic about picking which holidays to celebrate as a clan and which we’re each going to be open for business.

(That isn’t to say, however, that certain people can’t take that permissiveness too far. We all know which member of our family won’t make it to any family get-togethers because he spends 80 hours a week at his business.)

The Advantage of Seeming Perfectly Normal

Going back to those questions I get about how to encourage kids to take a look at entrepreneurship, I’ve got to say that the most important step is to make running your own business seem like the normal thing to do. Otherwise, you’re going to be in a situation where business ownership seems entirely aspirational — something everyone would like to do eventually but that is out of reach right now.

While I don’t have a ton of numbers to back me up, my experiences show that young entrepreneurs usually only emerge when they have friends or family who have also gone into business for themselves. Having a mentor who can provide advice on the nuts and bolts of running a business is part of the reason, but that’s not all of it. Knowing that your uncle, who has gone through four wives and shouldn’t be left alone with a six-pack, can run a business does a lot for making entrepreneurship really seem possible. It may even make starting your own business seem like a complete no-brainer.

In those sorts of circumstances, a kid may start thinking of her own future without quite as many constraints. While I went through quite a few potential career paths (I thought I was going to go to law school for quite a while), I definitely assumed that I would work for myself and wind up at the top of the food chain through most of my plans. Ashley seemed to have a similar experience, despite have somewhat more focused goals: “As for my entrepreneurial family, I guess I’d never realized how much it impacted my outlook on work until I graduated college. I knew I wanted to freelance way before it was the cool thing to do. When I was in 8th grade, I remember knowing that I wanted to be an editor, and I wanted to work from home on my own schedule.”

Family isn’t Everything for Encouraging Entrepreneurship

College tends to screw with an entrepreneur’s plans: while there are plenty of schools that put heavy emphasis on helping students, most schools are very clearly set up to feed students straight into jobs after granting those all-important diplomas. Both Ashley and I spent several months post-graduation applying to jobs that we didn’t particularly care for. Ashley was a lot smarter than I was: “Once I was in college, I adjusted my plan a bit: I assumed I’d work as an in-house editor for a few years to build connections before I struck out on my own. Long story short, that plan changed after I spent four months applying to jobs I wasn’t crazy about, for companies I didn’t care for, in locations that meant a long commute. I was already doing some freelance work, so I said ‘screw it’ and started putting all that extra time into building my business.”

I actually landed one of those jobs I applied for, took it, and then quit after a week and a half. I might have been able to stick out that particular job longer if I hadn’t had some freelance work already coming in, as well as a belief that I actually had to. But it was an awful job, in the way that many jobs immediately after college are, and I had no driving assumptions that the world had to be that way.

In fact, I was working off of assumptions that directly opposed the idea that I had to deal with a job that made me miserable. With freelancing, and even with the odd jobs I’d had both with family members’ businesses and assorted college departments, I’d had a pretty good time. I usually wound up doing work that I enjoyed, with people I enjoyed hanging out with. I’m not about to suggest that you should only do work that you’re passionate about, but I’d like to believe that we should all be able to find work that we either don’t dread every morning or that we get paid more than enough to make worthwhile.

But because I had that sense that I could be doing more, plus some real world business experience from my time in family businesses, and the belief that running a business just wouldn’t be that hard, I went whole hog into working for myself. I see my family background as a major advantage in that respect.

Image by Stock.xchang user Bubbels

The Memory of Money in the Modern Age

11435188454_ac025460e3

 

Deep down, I’m always surprised when I can give someone a dollar and I get something back. Money — paper or plastic — doesn’t really seem like it should be worth anything. We’re all in on this giant unspoken conspiracy to agree that money will continue working and that we can exchange it.

But while we all do a good job of playing along, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about why the concept of money works. I read an interview with economist Neil Wallace that provides a little insight. I’m going to copy a chunk of the interview here (you can read the whole thing here. The TL;DR is that money is memory — a way to track and exchange favors more than anything else, but Neil Wallace says it better. ‘Region’, by the way, refers to The Region, a publication put out by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, which published the interview.

Wallace: Now think about Robinson Crusoe, after he meets Friday. They don’t need money, but again, there might be plenty of absence of double coincidences. Now think further. Here we are in the middle of Pennsylvania. There are lots of Amish communities around here. When they’re isolated, the usual story about an Amish community—or an isolated Israeli kibbutz—is that they didn’t use money.

Region: Trust was their currency.

Wallace: Well, that’s a word that Douglas Gale used, but it’s probably not the best word. Think about this Amish community. The vision is, if my barn burns down, then everybody will come and help me rebuild it. In economics, we try to rationalize behavior without altruism, if we’re able to; so what makes that work without altruism? Everybody notices who shows up to help rebuild it.

Region: A sort of credit accounting.

Wallace: Yes. And the guy who doesn’t show up, if he does that repeatedly, will get kicked out eventually. This can work without money because people remember what people have done in the past.

Region: So, money is memory.

Wallace: Yes, “money is memory” is a casual way to state that. Now, that’s a hugely powerful idea that I and other people have been working with.

Cryptocurrencies Are Just Memory, Too

The concept of ‘money is memory’ works surprisingly well when we think about Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Effectively, every Bitcoin has a record of who mined it and who has held it since — not by name, but by an identifier that lets users be sure that a Bitcoin is a genuine piece of spendable currency. The unbroken chain of provenance lets everyone (at least those who use Bitcoins) agree that a particular Bitcoin is real and not fradulent.

That sort of memory of exchange shows, over and over again, that currency really is a series of shifting of obligations on to the next person. With a cryptocurrency that is essentially unbacked, the only way to get value back out of the money that you have somehow earned is to keep it moving.

Dogecoin is a cryptocurrency with a sense of humor. Based on the ‘doge’ meme (where pictures of a Shiba puppy are surrounded by broken English discussing something amazing, usually in Comic Sans), Dogecoin is similar to Bitcoin but worth far less at this point. A small community of users has sprung up, many of whom have started using Dogecoin as a way to tip people who are doing cool things online. On the Dogecoin subreddit, for instance, there’s now a tool to allow you to reward other reddit commenters with Dogecoins when they share something clever or useful.

Perhaps even more so than other currencies, Dogecoin’s use as a way to tip or otherwise acknowledge small bits of awesomeness reflects the real value of money as a way to trade memories. It’s a way to share a memory that is not quite big enough to be worth paying for — building a barn is a big memory, while sharing a witty comment on a link isn’t nearly as momentous. But even those tiny transactions will build up over time: on a site like reddit, a respected contributor has access to an audience. The same holds true for most websites. When someone consistently shares interesting things online, they’re rewarded with attention, which can lead in turn to financial benefits. Dogecoin tips just allow us to track smaller increments of memories.

The Long Memory of the Internet

It’s funny, in a way, that we have this sense of the internet as the elephant that never forgets: sure, technology has an awkward way of ensuring that your high school shenanigans you shared to Facebook will come back and bite you. But we’re talking about tools that are only a few years old — perhaps as old as a few decades if we’re going to include email — and that are already dealing with an overwhelming amount of data.

Yes, our collective memories are all online, including the ones we regret, but we’re already approaching a point where sorting through all the details is getting tough. What happens when Facebook actually has twenty years of your photos, updates, and likes? What about fifty years? Sorting through all that data to pull out value is going to make current big data efforts look rudimentary at best.

But having that data available also going to make the real value of memory clearer — and make sense of ‘money as memory.’ As we do business on a global scale, we need to be able to comparatively value products and services. Most currencies are essentially contextual: we know the local currency’s value within our day to day activities, but we can’t really guess what another country’s currency is really worth (and the whole idea that people get rich off of trading currencies can be downright scary). But with a shared currency, we can make financial decisions we trust on a global scale. We can trade the memory of painting a house in the U.S. into the memory of a meal in Argentina into the memory of writing software in Thailand.

Cryptocurrencies Aren’t Ready Just Yet

While I am enthusiastic about the concept of digital currencies, I haven’t jumped in — I’m certainly not one of those devotees who have committed themselves to using nothing but Bitcoin! That’s because Bitcoin, and other cryptocurrencies to a lesser extent, aren’t yet stable enough to truly act as a useful global currency. Over the course of 2013, a Bitcoin’s value had two zeroes tacked on to the end, going from $13.50 to well over $1000.

That sort of extreme variation makes it impossible to use Bitcoin in day-to-day business. Even if there were business owners willing to rely on Bitcoin (rather than to accept it as something of a novelty act), the fluctuations have led many users of the cryptocurrency to hoard their money, with the expectation that the value can only continue to increase. We’re essentially in the middle of a Bitcoin bubble — sooner or later, the whole thing is going to fall apart.

And that’s okay. Consider this a first go at the cryptocurrency learning curve. The first recorded fiat currency (currency backed by a government but not pegged to gold or silver) was in 11th century China. The situation fell apart pretty quickly, with the government printing more money and causing inflation. It took a couple of tries for fiat currency to work out. It’s going to take a couple of attempts for cryptocurrencies to work out the kinks. But in the long-term, there’s an incredible potential for the effectiveness of the concept of a digital currency.

Image by Flickr user dilettantiquity