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

Why Libraries Would Make Great Ebook Publishers

5736110401_14cef92cd9

I’m a big fan of public libraries. The sheer amount of time I’ve spent in libraries (including those I didn’t actually have a card for) makes every library feel a little like home.

While I love wandering through the stacks, I’m comfortable with how the best libraries firmly embrace technology. As long as there is still a librarian around who can direct me to the next great novel I need to read or tell me how to find that incredibly obscure fact I need for an article, I don’t care if that librarian points me to an ebook, a website or a physical book. That’s because one of the greatest values librarians provide is that of curation — without an expert, it’s hard to navigate the giant piles of both data and stories the human race has managed to produce. In fact, my experience of wandering the stacks is not universal: many libraries require readers to request a book from a librarian or through an automated system. That in turn means that readers must know what books they need, which makes curation ever more necessary.

With that in mind, there seems to be an opportunity for libraries to take their position as curators a step further: why don’t libraries publish ebooks?

I don’t mean actually printing books, mind you. I’m talking about finding material, editing it and releasing it online in a digital format. Libraries can act as small presses, releasing publications only in electronic formats.

Let’s Talk Problems First

I pitched the idea to a friend of mine who is a librarian and the whole conversation got pretty excited very quickly — the idea has a lot of appeal, at least to those of us who nerd out on information sciences. We did manage to make a couple of passes at what the big problems are going to be for the average library considering whether to start publishing ebooks.

On the most basic level, resources are always a problem. Libraries are typically non-profits or governmental departments. As organizations, libraries aren’t exactly known for having giant piles of cash to throw at experiments. Many libraries have a hard time keeping the doors open. In theory, at least, publishing some ebooks could bring in revenue for a library, but building that revenue stream is going to take upfront investment, at least of time.

I’d like to say that running an ebook publishing house — especially at the small press level — is easy enough to do. After all, I’ve published a stack of ebooks without any special training. But while it’s easy to get started publishing online these days, it’s also incredibly easy to get into trouble. Copyright law, for instance, is so arcane that most people just throw up their hands, rather than trying to figure out how it works. The average small library isn’t going to have an intellectual property lawyer on staff and also lacks the resources necessary to handle any sort of copyright lawsuit.

But these seem to be the biggest problems that a library interested in publishing ebooks faces. They’re at least as manageable as raising the funds for new buildings, which libraries have to do on a somewhat routine basis.

Libraries Can Win at the Publishing Game

The average library actually has some resources that put such institutions ahead of typical self-publishers, if not many small presses.

The biggest asset most libraries possess is that they already employ librarians — a class of workers who absolutely have to be tech-savvy to hold a job. The need for technology is not something new for librarians: my grandmother was one of the first people I knew who had an email address, because she had to have one in the early Nineties as part of her job as a university librarian.

Digitizing records (a routine process in many libraries) requires many of the same skills as setting up an ebook. Anyone who can handle the necessary technology to operate a local library is going to be able to learn at least the basics of publishing ebooks online.

Digitization represents an additional benefit: any organization that bothers with making electronic copies of paper documents (and other non-digital records) sees at least some demand for those records. The typical library owns collections of materials that people are interested in accessing, such as family history records and local information, as well as the personal papers of local notables and other documents that sneek into the backrooms of any such institution. Just creating ebook versions of such records could at least support the necessary efforts to preserve such documents. Given the people willing to pay to travel to the areas their families once lived in, I can’t imagine that family tree researchers wouldn’t be willing to pay for curated local records in digital format, especially if they can’t travel to the library in question.

Build From the Local Community

My local library district offers books and other media. But the individual libraries are also crucial parts of the community because they have meeting spaces and even arrange for certain types of experts to speak. That sort of tie makes the idea of ebook publishing even more appealing, at least in my mind.

Having community ties means that a library has supporters it can rely on for the funds and volunteer power necessary to build a publishing program, as well as a built-in audience that may want to purchase ebooks (rather than just checking them out temporarily from the library). But given that many writers’ groups meet at their local libraries, there’s a lot more opportunity there: libraries can work to curate the local writing available, helping the community publish its own works and accessing writing with a local bent.

Local authors always need evangelists, like the librarian or bookstore owner willing to take the time to set up a ‘local author’ display. Librarians can be champions for their communities on a whole new level in this little thought experiment. On a certain level, the idea of libraries publishing ebooks makes me think of the monastaries that housed libraries and scriptoriums before printing presses made wide-spread publishing an option. Librarians in those days might have effectively decided what books would continue to exist by choosing which would be copied. They curated the information important enough to be preserved for their communities. Today, just about any piece of information can make it into a format where it will be preserved, but we need curators to decide which pieces are important enough to be read — a purpose that libraries are uniquely suited for.

What Libraries Need to Get Started Publishing

Libraries, as a general rule, have some sort of fundraising mechanism already in place. There are similar systems for finding volunteers. I’m not going to suggest reinventing those particular wheels.

But there are some specific resources that the average library will need to recruit. These could be resources that the libraries in question pay for or they could be provided by volunteers.

  • A graphic designer: While it’s possible to format and publish an ebook with nothing more than the word processing program already on your computer, it’s always easier to sell an attractive package.
  • A copyright expert: Just having someone review proposed book contents to make sure that a library has the right to publish the necessary material will save a whole lot of trouble. I don’t know how in-depth that process needs to be; it would be nice to have an intellectual property lawyer weigh in on the question.
  • A commitment to some specific ebook formats: Ebook publishers spend a lot of time chasing each other’s tails on what formats to publish in. I’m not prepared to make that sort of decision for anyone, but I’m personally banking on Kindle and PDF for most projects.
  • Marketing help: This one is probably the toughest. Libraries have great local audiences, but promoting anything beyond those nearby groups will be hard. If the money’s available, spending some on marketing help is going to be one of the most useful investments.

I could see a startup or even a non-profit creating a turn-key solution for libraries interested in publishing their own ebooks (if you decide this is an idea you want to pursue, email me so I can introduce you to my librarian friends). I could also easily see a few consultants popping up who offer to parachute in and teach a ‘publishing for librarians’ program (ditto).

Personally, there’s a whole stack of books my library could publish that I’d be happy to slap down some virtual dollars for. I’d love to be able to support local authors and local libraries at the same time. I’d like to think that people who don’t spend quite as much time in libraries as I do would be willing to do the same.

Image by Flickr user Saint Louis University

Keeping the Open Source / Creative Commons Eco-System Healthy

9645435189_32282abc3b

When writing blog posts, particularly for clients without a budget for images, I rely heavily on the kindness of strangers — those strangers who post their photographs to Flickr under one Creative Commons license or another. I’ve been known to get downright snooty about how carefully I search out the images I can legal use; it irritates me to no end when someone tries to tell me that they can just use any image they find online. But while I have my nose in the air, I also feel a bit hypocritical: I’m not contributing images back to the Creative Commons pool that other people can use for their own projects.

Photography isn’t my passion; I mess around with Instagram and other photo apps, but I don’t do much else. I don’t have a lot of photos I feel are worth releasing to the world.

I don’t think I’m taking advantage of all those photographers who feel comfortable sharing their work despite my pangs of guilt. I’m religious about providing links back to the work of the photographer (or other creative) who provided the work I’m relying on. When requested, I’ve even gone back and edited old posts to make sure that I’m linking to a creative’s preferred online presence or using the anchor text the photographer prefers.

Appropriate attribution is the least I can do, though. Good stock photography is expensive and photographers licensing their work under Creative Commons are (at least theoretically) foregoing some income. Links are something of a currency, at least online, but they may not be enough to keep the Creative Commons ecosystem healthy. What I should do, at least in my own mind, is to release some amount of my own writing under a Creative Commons license, to be freely used.

So why don’t I release my own work under a Creative Commons license?

Part of it is a question of mechanics: I earn my living from my writing, at least the first time a given article or ebook appears anywhere. Licensing work in such a way that I can get paid requires hanging on to copyright, at least in the short-term. I’m not saying that those photographers posting their work under Creative Commons licenses shouldn’t be able to earn a living. However, more than a few of those photographers have other sources of income.

But part of the problem is that there’s no clear incentive for me to release copyright: if I write well, I’m going to get those inbound links (the currency of of the web). It’s relatively rare that anyone wants to republish an article that’s already freely available on the web on some other website. The search engines don’t reward such behavior, after all. I do occasionally get requests to reprint my work offline, in actual print. I routinely allow non-profits to reprint my work without charging them a fee. I’m even open to allowing someone who stands to turn a bit of a profit use my work without recompense. But there are plenty of companies that I’d rather not license my work to without compensation (such as textbook publishers, who have occasionally approached me in the past).

The Existing Incentives for Open Source

The Creative Commons and open source communities have a huge amount of overlap. But open source is more effective: more people using open source software seem to make a habit of putting work back into the eco-system. The open source approach to software is very well established: if you’re currently reading this, you’ve touched multiple pieces of open source software even if you didn’t realize it. Many content management systems, servers and other online technologies run entirely on open source software.

WordPress, for instance, is made available under the GNU General Public License, an open source license. Anyone who wants to download WordPress’s files and use them to set up a website can. There’s a clear benefit to that kind of availability: WordPress has been downloaded over six million times, which doesn’t even take into account the number of WordPress.com accounts there are or the number of developers who have set up multiple WordPress websites from a single download. There is no way for a software product to grow that dramatically in a closed system — and that kind of growth can be a major incentive for someone to contribute to open source software. While WordPress’s contributors haven’t exactly become household names, they do enjoy a certain amount of celebrity among people in the know.

There isn’t a lot of money that goes with that relative fame. There are a few particularly profitable WordPress-based businesses, as well as other companies based on building open source software. The licenses, however, aren’t built with developing strong business models in mind, purposefully. There are some options, like Creative Commons’ Non-Commercial license which allows for free use of creative work, provided that it isn’t for a commercial process, while still allowing the creator to financially benefit from her work, but these licenses aren’t always the easiest to earn a living from. That’s not necessarily a problem, provided that the creatives making their work available under some sort of open source license feel adequately rewarded.

Some people just want an excuse to work on cool projects and to make sure that other people have access to those cool projects. But altruism and fun aren’t the strongest of incentives. If something else comes up, it’s easy enough for an open source contributor to walk away from a beloved project: maybe someone else will take over maintaining it, maybe not. It’s a question of whether someone else has as much passion for a given project as that project’s founder.

There are certain side benefits that have evolved that lead people to contribute to open source for less noble reasons. For software developers, writing code under open source licenses can be one way to build up a visible portfolio. That in turn can make finding paying employment much easier: recruiters routinely go through popular open source projects to find prospects, as well as browse through profiles on GitHub.

Are Those Incentives Enough?

Even with the incentives present in building open source software and releasing other work under extremely permissive licenses, there are plenty of projects that just wither away. The underlying files may be available online somewhere but they aren’t updated to work with newer software versions or kept current otherwise. These are often projects that individuals and organizations depend on and have a vested interest in improving.

In my mind, these situations are proof that there’s room for further incentives for open source communities. I’ve seen more than one situation where a company wound up hiring a developer just to bring an open source project back up to the point where the software was usable again — and then choose not to release that code for some reason or another. There needs to be a cultural incentive for companies (as well as writers like myself and other creatives out in the world) to pass material back into the open source and Creative Commons ecosystems.

At a minimum, that means creating mechanisms for streamlining that process and educating users about ways to support open source. Returning to the WordPress community for a moment, it’s worth noting that many users who set up blogs on WordPress.com or even on their own sites don’t understand what open source software is. They just know that they can use WordPress for free. Even a little education goes a long way with such users.

Where does all this leave the open source ecosystem?

Perhaps it’s not in the easiest place in the world, but the situation is actually pretty good. We’re incredibly lucky at this point that enough people are willing to give their time to creating amazing projects that the rest of us get to use and enjoy. The ecosystem is healthy enough, at this point, to keep going for the foreseeable future.

But just because things are humming along now doesn’t mean that there isn’t opportunity for improvement. It’s a good time to discuss how we want to grow open source communities in the future and what we want the norms of these communities to be. We are starting to reach a point where some of the original proponents of open source may be thinking about retirement (Richard Stallman, the author of the GPL, turned 60 this year, for instance). That means that those of us who are newer to the worlds of open source and Creative Commons are going to need to step up.

So, what do you want the licensing of your creative works to look like in the future? How do you want to benefit from them and what are you willing to give back to the community?

Image by Flickr user Dennis Skley

Why Only One Senior Thesis?

My sister finished her capstone project for her degree in graphic design this spring. Before I jump into some thoughts that her work sparked, check out this short (two minutes) video about how she taught kids in Baltimore how to create signs — and why. The site for the project is here.

Baltimore Sign Project from Reed Ratynski on Vimeo.

I’m proud of my sister’s project because she put a whole lot of work into it. But the process got me thinking: why do we think in terms of creating just one capstone project or one senior thesis?

Sure, anyone who tries to do two projects of that size at one time may not survive to come out the other side. But we treat college (and perhaps graduate school) as the best opportunity for someone to dive into a giant project and put it on display for critique.

I’ve Had to Do More; Why Should I Suffer Alone?

I should provide some context. I did a massive paper to complete the graduation requirements for the International Baccalaureate program in high school. I created a new magazine from scratch in order to graduate from college. I participated in a massive group project where we essentially created a new product and a marketing plan to go with it to complete my master’s degree.

I like ridiculously massive projects. I routinely seek them out for myself. Publishing an ebook isn’t that much less work than some of these projects have been. So I’m biased in favor of looking for these sorts of opportunities. There’s also a certain element in my reasoning that I’ve had to do massive projects to mark the milestones in my life, so everyone else should, too.

But, even with that bias accounted for, it seems a bit ridiculous that most people only wind up doing one of these massive projects with the intention of showing it off.

Sticking a Flag in the Map

At least in theory, we’re always improving our skills. That’s the whole point of maintaining a portfolio and updating it regularly. We need to be able to show off our best work; it proves our value in our chosen fields.

But a senior thesis isn’t always our best work. Rather, it’s a project that forces us to reach for something we may not be quite ready for. It requires us to apply skills that we haven’t yet mastered, in a fairly flashy way. It comes with an expectation that we will publicly present this big piece of work and accept critiques on it. A senior project is as much a part of the learning process as it is proof that a student actually attended the necessary classes to earn a degree.

For those of us committed to being life-long learners, not routinely pulling out all the stops on a project in the vein of a senior thesis is illogical. Sure, we may apply new skills in little pieces and avoid the risk of public failure. But we don’t have a map of how our abilities progress — we don’t plant flags in our personal maps that say that we’ve conquered a whole new skill set.

Just the Right Amount of Stress

I’m not talking about doing an intensive project every year — I’ve just about lost my mind on every capstone project I’ve done, desperately working so that the damn thing is done and off my plate — and not even every other year. Something on the order of once every five years sounds about right to me.

The stress should stay, though: it’s a result of actually having something (like a grade) on the line. We make major breakthroughs and figure out entirely new approaches because failure is not an option. When a whole degree is on the line, almost everyone can produce. Academia may be on to something with the requirement that professors must ‘publish or perish.’

However, it’s pretty tough to find a situation where something big is on the line after you get out of school. Sure, you can keep going back for graduate degrees, but eventually you will run out of places to hang diplomas. Massive work projects can be stressful, but it’s rare that you find yourself pushed that far out of your comfort zone: projects might have short deadlines, but it’s rare that you’re given work that you haven’t already proved that you can accomplish.

That only leaves social expectations as a driving force for this sort of project. Social expectations got me through a bat mitzvah, including learning two Torah portions (quick translation: double the work most Jewish kids have to do). Well, social expectations and the promise of a big party. We all stress about what our friends think of us; why not direct that angst towards something useful, like proving once every five years that we are absolutely amazing?

Making Your Own Milestones

It would be nice to be able to tie the sort of big creative pushes to other milestones in our lives, but let’s be honest: having a kid or getting married are stressful enough markers all on their own.

Telling all of your friends that you’re committing to getting a big project done — something that scares you and excites you and stresses you out — is about as close as you can get. While that adds more stress to the process, it also adds a little bit of that ‘must succeed or else’ quality that we need in order to push through. Without that drive to make it through, without the consequence that (at least in our heads) our friends will laugh at our failures, it’s hard to tackle something big and scary.

If you’re willing to go all in, you may drag some of your friends along for the ride. Since misery loves company, I consider this a benefit. I’d love to see our society just generally expect us to do something cool every couple of years. It would help all of us get to those cool ideas that just seem a little too hard to pull off.

Your Starbucks Name Versus Your SEO Name

My name is great for SEO purposes: if you type my name into any of the major search engines, everything that comes up on the first page of results refers only to me. I thoroughly dominate the first several pages of results, too.

It’s unusual, though. I spend quite a bit of time searching for specific people (not in a creepy way, I promise) and there are fewer unique names than you’d expect. Even those people who have fairly unique names often get caught up in strange search results. There used to be a lot of results for my name that involved things like book clubs reading something by Bram Stoker next Thursday.

But while we’re all looking for unique names that can ensure that we’ll get found online, going with something too unique doesn’t work in many offline situations. I have plenty of friends who have what we call ‘Starbucks names’: rather than giving a name that the typical kid behind the Starbucks counter can’t handle, they give something very simple. ‘Vasily’ becomes ‘Bob,’ at least long enough to get his coffee. Starbucks names are usually consistent, since you need to remember what name you’re listening for to make sure you get your drink.

The Identity of the Moment

The concept that we each only have one identity is new. Of course, it’s not out of the question to have different nick names at home and at work. But it can go further. In many cultures, there are situations in which a person will take on a new name. Even if you’re based in a Western culture and managed to never encounter diversity, you’ve almost certainly seen a woman take a new last name when she married. In my family, marriage has even occasionally necessitated a change in first names: women who marry in and share a first name with another family member wind up with a nickname almost immediately.

But computers don’t particularly do well with the concept that someone who is named “Michael” today might be named “Mike” tomorrow — let alone that he might suddenly be named “Henry” next week. Computers like immutable, unique indentifiers. That’s one of the reasons that social media has forced many of us into using unique handles that may not make perfect sense. We often wind up defaulting to the same user name across multiple sites, making ourselves easier to use. A Starbucks name doesn’t work with computers.

It is no small matter to change over all your online accounts to a new name, but there are people who do exactly that. There are even those who do so on a fairly regular basis. If your goal is to be known online, however, the process of building a following is more difficult if you’re constantly changing your actual name or your business name. And if you finally get that break, you may very well wind up answering to a name that is far different than what is on your legal paperwork. Consider Penelope Trunk, who started out life as Adrienne Roston and has gone through several names in between.

I Don’t Know Real Names

If you’ve been active in social media or online businesses for a while, you may have noticed a certain phenomenon. When you’re talking shop, and someone mentions a name, you need a little more context: “Do you know John Doe? @doe? Doe.com?” You get a Twitter handle or a domain name. And that works: those online identifiers are a part of our larger identities.

I’ve actually ran into problems because I interact with some people much more online than off. I don’t always know everyone’s real name. I’ve been known to make introductions with folks’ Twitter handles, rather than their name. I don’t feel too bad about doing so, though, since I’ve had the same done to me.

The only reason I care about ‘real’ identities these days is when I’m doing business. I don’t necessarily need a person’s name, as long as I’ve got her LLC down on the paperwork. But I do need some real, legal identity to make a contract and take care of my business. Beyond that, I’ll call you whatever you ask me to.

The Right to Your Identity

The internet hasn’t quite caught up to the realities of identity. We need better tools for handling the question of identity, especially when there are reasons to keep parts of an identity away from each other.

Currently, there are plenty of people who maintain separate email accounts, separate Facebook accounts and other divisions in their identity, often for nothing more than to protect their privacy. Most of the terms of service for such sites require you to only have one account, by the way. If you have 5,000 ‘friends’ on social media, it’s not unreasonable to have a more private space to connect with the people who you really know. Taking it a step further, there are plenty of people online who I would rather not know certain details of my identity — like my home address.

And that’s assuming the best: there have been plenty of stories about online sites accidentally exposing information about women to their abusive exes, because a site wanted to make sure it was dealing with real people. A failure to protect an individual’s identity can have long-term ramifications.

But protection is not necessarily enough. We should have a right to be who we are: many websites have difficulties dealing with the most basic elements of names, like if there is a space or a hyphen in someone’s last name. It’s rude to ask millions of people to change how they represent themselves because a busy programmer hasn’t handled things correctly. In addition, those details create inconsistent identities across the web, making SEO that much harder.

Handling Identity in a Practical Manner

Many of us already hold unique identifiers on the web: they’re called domain names. I spend a huge chunk of my time convincing friends and family members that they need their own domains, even if those URLs just redirect to a social media account.

But domain names make identity easier: if you’re dealing with two Jane Smiths and each has her own domain name, the computer can use that as a unique identifier and let each person use whatever name she wants. If a person needs to use different names in different spots, but wants a place to tell everyone all those elements of her identity, a website on her own domain name makes that pretty easy. If, however, she wants to keep all those elements of her identity separate, setting up separate domain names isn’t an impossible task. It’s a bit of a pie-in-the-sky approach currently, but it’s a good idea to go ahead and nail down a domain name now.

Image by Flickr user Erik Charlton

The Blessings of the Coworking Space

3434304635_20d0e9d7aa

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?

2862306654_2a2b542444

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

What Makes an Ebook Really an Ebook?

When is an ebook better than a printed book? When it includes resources that a physical book could never provide. I picked up a copy of The MacSparky Markdown Field Guide (an excellent resource for anyone using Markdown) and have been thinking about what really constitutes an ebook ever since.

I opted for the PDF version of David Sparks and Eddie Smith’s ebook. The PDF version is actually the secondary option, though, with the iBookstore version taking precedence. I prefer PDF for flexibility, despite being one of those people who mostly buys their hardware from Apple.

The reason that the iBookstore version might be preferable is because of the sheer amount of non-written content built in to the ebook. Every section seems to have something in addition to some very well written content, like a screencast or an audio interview. The same multimedia content came along with the PDF, though it isn’t embedded in the document. All in all, The MacSparky Markdown Field Guide weighs in at 130 pages, one and a half hours of video and one hour of audio.

We all have a working definition of a ‘book’ as a bunch of written content, perhaps with some images thrown in. But what happens to that definition as we shift over to reading our books on devices that make integrating video and audio content extremely simple? I wouldn’t be surprised if the definiton of books expands to include most types of content, though I’ll be very surprised if the word disappears from use — there’s a few too many of us bibliophiles out there for that.

On the surface, I love the idea that I can have all sorts of media in my reading material. But I want more data: how easy is it to process this mix? I shift back and forth pretty easily, but I spend all day glued to a computer monitor. For some readers / watchers, I could see this mix being very helpful, but for others I could see it causing distractions. Integrating more materials could change the interpretation of books: if there isn’t a video about a certain section, it clearly couldn’t be important. I know I get hung up on points in given books that the author may have included as a throw away. Will those points get lost.

I found The MacSparky Markdown Field Guide incredibly useful. I don’t expect to have answers about the right way to integrate media content for quite a while, but it’s a topic worth paying attention to. We’re going to see more examples every day, for the near future.

The Very Real Appeal of Random

5330056727_a98c97c3c5

For all that we can spend hours searching for exactly the right item to buy, the appeal of buying something random is always there. When a site like Woot offers up random items to its audience, the sheer number of people willing to put down money for a box without any hint of what will be in it is incredible. Woot’s ‘Bag of Crap’ sales sell out within seconds and have even been known to crash servers.

Randomness is appealing, on a level that we don’t always expect. Of course, we don’t like all surprises — receiving something in the mail that we can’t track back to an original sender is more likely to feel creepy than exciting. But when that unexpectedness is balanced with a little forewarning or explanation, it can be a very good thing.

An Element of Trust

More and more successful businesses have a few bits of randomness built in. Consider the genre of subscription services that now mail their customers a box every month or so — without saying exactly what will be in the box ahead of time. Quarterly Co. is among the leading lights in this new field: the company puts together packages of items chosen by relatively famous contributors and mails them out to subscribers. I say ‘relatively famous’ because they include bloggers with large followings, CEOs that may not be well-known outside of their own niche and other ‘internet famous’ types. The mechanics that Quarterly Co follows mean that every three months, subscribers to a particular curator get a box in the mail — they don’t know what’s coming, but have some assurance that it’s awesome. It’s even possible for a person to subscribe to multiple contributors and get several bits of random on a regular basis.

Quarterly Co. has rapidly become very popular in certain circles: while the company doesn’t make too many details available, but even early on the company reported that it was adding new subscriptions every five minutes. I can only assume that speed has increased since then.

The reason for Quarterly Co’s success is not necessarily obvious. Sure, they’re offering what amounts to a gift box full of cool stuff from cool people on a regular basis — and who doesn’t like that idea? But the ease of trust that Quarterly Co. provides is crucial to the process. It’s simple to trust the company: they’ve clearly done this sort of thing before. Even better, Quarterly Co’s presence in the process means that the crazy artists and other creatives they’ve enlisted are going to send things that are appropriate. If I were to subscribe to someone whose name I’m familiar with, I may also be familiar with any pranks she’s pulled in the past. I might have some questions about the quality of the items a person might curate. Quarterly Co. eliminates any concern I could have in that direction.

The Surprise Business Model

While Quarterly Co. is taking a broad approach to what can be included in its subscriptions, offering some well-defined surprises is now a business model. My husband gets a package every month with five new inks for his fountain pen. He knows that he’ll get ink every time, but the colors and manufacturers are always a surprise. They aren’t randomly selected, but because there’s no interaction with the curator, the choices always feel a bit random on our end.

But these random selections lead to some good things, especially from the point of view of the ink seller who put together the ink subscription. As my husband has tried out a whole bunch of new inks, he’s found plenty that he wants more than the small sample that he’s already got. Not only is the subscription a money-maker, but it leads directly to follow up sales.

There are similar companies that send out samples exclusively in their packages, partnering with relevant companies to get products for free. There’s some serious flexibility in this business model in how someone can make money — and there’s plenty of business to be made. If you judge just based on the number of times a week I have to talk myself out of a new subscription, the companies involved barely have to work to make sales.

The Negligible Price Point

One of the reasons that these subscription services succeed, as well as other products that are sold with some randomness built in, is because of the low costs. We, as buyers, can’t justify paying high rates for something we don’t know we’ll be able to use or enjoy. We can, however, justifying a little bit of fun money for the right bit of randomness.

Quarterly Co. is at the higher end of random pricing, going occasionally as high as $50 per quarter. My husband’s inks are $10 per month (which is very cheap for the quantity of ink, if you don’t have a fountain pen addict in the house to set price points by). These companies target audiences for whom $10 or even $25 a month is easily forgettable. It’s almost low enough that the buyer can convince herself that a random package showing up is really a gift. And while I wouldn’t get a family member a ‘Bag of Crap,’ I would happily pay for a year’s subscription for some of those hard-to-shop-for relatives.

I’m well aware that an extra $10 per month isn’t a negligible expense for many people. And subscribing to multiple offers takes that amount higher very quickly. But for those demographics with higher incomes, buying something random can be seen as getting a surprise gift. Keeping those low price points are an excellent move, especially for anyone who can either get products inexpensively (or sometimes free in the case of samples) or already has sunk costs in inventory.

Buying Real Randomness

Darius Kazemi created Random Shopper, a bot with an Amazon account. It has a set spending limit, enforced with a gift card, but can buy absolutely random items off of Amazon and have them shipped to Kazemi. In an interview with BoingBoing, Kazemi explained that the bot’s purpose was “to see if somehow those purchases feel more or less meaningful than something he would have conscientiously chosen himself; a way, if you will, of exploring his attachment to that ‘crap.'”

He’s getting the full experience that many other companies emulate — no curation or pseudorandomness here. I admit that I’d be willing to buy a couple of gift cards for a bot like this, just to see what comes out. There’s an appeal to just pulling the lever and seeing what happens. It’s the same instinct that drives gambling, except that each of these options actually always results in a win, at least as far as getting something for the money.

Kazemi is getting exposed to music, videos and books he would never have encountered otherwise. There’s a definite value to the randomness he’s added to his life. The fact that the bot has the constant ability to surprise him may not work for everyone, though: most consumers like a little constraint on the subscriptions and other random products that they purchase. But for people who are able to move outside of those constraints, Kazemi’s bot may prove incredibly attractive.

The Benefit of Surprise

I don’t have any statistics to prove that people who regularly face unexpected situations generally do better in life, but anecdotally, it’s true. Such people are more likely to explore new ideas on their own, adapt more effectively to different situations and be able to handle new concepts. There’s an upper limit to just how many shocks a system can take, of course, but the ability to cope is something that can be exercised and improved.

Since unexpected situations in general can improve our abilities to deal with problems, there’s a clear benefit to adding some randomness to our lives, preferably with as few constraints as we feel comfortable with. It’s probably not possible to add enough randomness to a day with a subscription to a monthly delivery of ink samples, but it may be a step in the right direction. Those ink samples, after all, can get you out of the comfort zone of using the same ink, day after day.

Consider how you can cultivate surprises in your own life, as well as in others. You may find a new business model of your own, once you take a walk on the random side.

Image by Flickr user Daniel Dionne