Richard Stallman famously wrote the GNU GPL, which is a license based on copy-left, not copyright. His position is the freedom to work with computers and work with software and work with software is hindered by copyright.
That in fact these are useful tools, and there are people who want to make useful tools and remix the useful tools of people who came before. Everything you use in the internet – that website that you visited that’s running on Apache, that email protocol, you’re able to do it because so many other entities were able to share these ideas.
So the way copy-left works is that if you use software that has a GPL license to make your software work better, it infects your software, and you also have to use the GPL license.
So if it works right, it will eat the world. So as the core of software in GNU gets bigger and deeper, it becomes more and more irresistible to use it. But as you use it the software you add to it also becomes part of that corpus.
And if enough people contribute to it, what we’ll end up with is an open, inspectable, improvable base of code that gives us a toolset for weaving together the culture we want to be part of.
Seth Godin – Akimbo, November 21 2018 – Intellectual Property
An open, inspectable, improvable base of code.
For tools for making software.
How about for educational outcomes? For assessments?
For a set of tools and resources for running an organisation?
Here are two examples from the charity I work for.
Scale and the right size
At the charity I work for, we produce graded reading books to support our literacy curriculum. These aren’t available elsewhere in Indonesia – especially not ones that can be tightly integrated with the curriculum – so we need to make them ourselves.
The catch is, that there’s an economy of scale to printing books. The cost-per-book of printing small runs of books costs more than three times as much as if you bulk print a thousand copies. In fact, a bulk-printed colour copy of a book costs less to print than a black and white photocopied version.
If we want to bring price down and quality up, we clearly need to print in bulk. The catch is, this takes a significant investment, and the only way to make it worth it is if we have thousands of teachers using our books – at which point they pay for themselves.
So a few years ago it became clear that if we wanted to serve more groups at a lower cost (which is a key factor in more groups being able to afford our program in the first place), we need to be big enough to make bulk-printing and storing thousands of reading books a realistic proposition.
Scale and the free prize
The best example of this that I’ve come across is how Amazon moved into web services and cloud computing with Amazon Web Services. In short, they built a huge amount of electronic infrastructure for their own use, then realise that they could share it with others.
Amazon gained a new revenue stream, and companies could run their online infrastructure on Amazon’s servers for a fraction of the cost of making their own. This created huge value for everyone (prizes all round!) – Amazon got richer, and a whole generation of companies (netflix, godaddy, airtable, hubspot, airbnb, coinbase,wetransfer, dropbox*) was able to offer services as if they were already big companies, and grow with their customer base, rather than needing a huge capital investment up front.
The free prize here came when at the same time as we were working out the above, we used the Business Model Canvas to study our (charitable) business model. It became clear that the books were an asset not just to us and our users, but to many other groups doing education work across Indonesia. They wanted books. We sorely needed an income stream.
By selling our books, our partners gained a useful resource to add value to their work, and we gained extra income for little additional effort. Prizes all round!
Scale, the free prize and the non-profit (2)
The other example of this is a work in process – we’re looking at sharing our curriculum and training materials online under a creative commons (open source) license.
This supports our core activity – equipping teachers to teach reading effectively – by allowing our users to review training sessions and check their technique. It might also come in handy for training future partners.
But it will also be a resource for anyone working in the same field as us – something that helps others that we can make available at no cost to ourselves. Free prize!
And of course, the free resources also help potential clients to hear about what we do, and perhaps makes them more likely to use or recommend our other services too.
We left Rule 6 a little watered down: “Scale carefully and find the size that works for your organisation”.
There’s a type of scaling, though, that is a reward: when scaling in a particular way means that you make a free prize for someone (see also here).
There might be a scale at which you are able to give something to your customers (or to people who are not yet your customers – maybe even people who never will be your customers) at no real cost to you. Is there something you own that you can sell cheaply and easily – or give away – that adds tremendous value to them? Could you:
Share a resource or planning tool?
Grow big enough that you can offer a useful physical space to the community?
Thicken the network by connecting different groups of your users so that they can create value for each other – or for someone else entirely? How big does your network need to be to be useful?
If you’re working more in service of a vision (that is, in service of people) than profit, there is more than likely an asset of some kind that you already own that you can share with others.
You might also create a free-prize for your organisation by selling the asset in some way. This isn’t free, but if it allows you to serve more people in a way that creates value for everyone and pays for itself then it’s prizes all round.
Or you might charge a litlte more, covering some of your overheads at no cost to yourself (prize for you) and allow you to serve more effectively and sustainably elsewhere (prize for the community).
This is one of the most useful tools I’ve come across for understanding how your business works (or might works).
It designed for lean-startup style customer discovery and validation, but I found it a fantastic lens for actually seeing different parts of our organisation for the first time, as well as how they fit together to make a whole.
I’ll do a series on this before long. For now, here’s a set of links to a video series from Strategyzer to give you the main ideas (youtube playlist here):
Build and own an asset that’s difficult for other people to reproduce
This is an interesting one in the non-profit world, because an attitude of generosity – of wanting to see problems solved more than we want to build empires – suggests that we should welcome others working in our ‘market’ as allies rather than competitors.
But there’s an important point about attitude here – we should always be building assets, and the most valuable ones we can build will always be those that are difficult for others to reproduce.
These assets might be products – in our case, curriculum and reading books. They might be services – delivering teacher training. They might be processes – the ways that the pieces of what you do fit together to create value. They might be things like reputation, trust, and relationships.
Investing in building any of these assets – from building a physical product to making a spec or howto for a process, to training your team – is always worth the time – a gift to your future self.
Here’s a thought experiment that links back to this post from a few weeks ago. Imagine that each central piece of your (charitable) business model was widely available at low cost (what if you open sourced it?). In the absence of each piece, what about your organisation means that people would still want to work with you? How would your clients answer this? How about your donors?
Be a “meaningful specific” rather than a “wandering generality” – it’s the principle of concentration of force and energy to get work done.
Rule 4 ties into Rules 1 and 3 – “real work for real clients” who are “eager to pay” – and if you work at a non-profit organisation it has implications for how you work with both clients and donors.
Rule 4 and clients
For your clients, it means your service is for them. Not for people in general, and it might help your clients… but a specific product or service for their specific needs.
Take education in Indonesia as an example. There’s a huge need for teacher training and resourcing. This is true across the age-range (from pre-school to university level), across different types of school (private and government-run schools), across the whole archipelago, and in any subject area. Within each of these ranges are groups of people with different needs, and trying to serve them all will get you no-where. Trying to produce something for the “average” teacher will dilute your energy and make it impossible to make something meaningful for any individual – and your clients are individuals.
Far, far better to concentrate on the needs of a specific group (helping pre-school teachers at small charity schools to teach reading more effectively) and do it well. If you’re good, you might end up with something that grows and can be made more widely applicable.
Rule 4 and donors
The same principle applies to your donors. It’s hard to go to the world and persuade them that your cause is important, and that they should give you money. It’s much easier to find people who already think what you do is important, and convince them that you do it well enough to be worth supporting.
Again, be specific – who are you helping? Why those people? Why this service? What difference is it making? Tell stories of change in the lives of specific people to explain the work that you do.
Rule 3: Serve Clients Eager to Pay for what you do (part 3)
In a nutshell, Seth says that if someone isn’t eager to pay, they’re not your client. You get to pick. So work for people eager to pay.
Eager to pay, donors, and two-sided markets
It’s often the case for non-profits that the people who pay for what you do aren’t the people who benefit directly from it. The client always pays, of course (see part 1), but someone else is also providing some of the cash you need to operate.
There are two risks here – the first is that you make an excellent product that your donors love, but that your clients aren’t willing to ‘buy’. This happens when you allow yourself to become accountable to donors wishes (and possibly whims) first, rather than being faithful to your clients’ needs, and what works for them. It’s easy to slip into this when you’re short of cash and start serving donors who are not-quite-eager to pay for what you do, but happy enough to pay for something different but similar – so you drift, and compromise, and end up being pulled in all directions, wasting time and money and pleasing no-one. See also Rule 1: Real Work for Clients First.
The second risk is when donors are eager to pay for part of what you do – usually the last-mile, bit that happens on the ground part – the impact – but refuse to pay for overheads or administration – the delivery.
Yes, you are ‘selling’ your impact, and you want to be efficient – but you must sell your real work as it is, which probably involves an office. Educate potential donors about what it takes to do your work well, and to work for the long term towards significant and lasting change. Explain to donors who want cool-sounding statements about their impact (‘100% of my donation went towards food that appeared magically and for free in front of hungry children’) that of course you have administrative costs – including your crappy office – and that without them, there would be no program.
Be as clear and as real as you can about everything you do, and why, and find those donors who like you, and like your work, and trust you, and are eager to pay to be a part of it.
Rule 3: Serve Clients Eager to Pay for what you do (part 2)
In a nutshell, Seth says that if someone isn’t eager to pay, they’re not your client. You get to pick. So work for people eager to pay.
Eager to pay and scaling the non-profit
This is where the bootstrapping mindset comes into its own in the world of non-profits and social programs. If you can find clients who are not only eager to “pay” time, attention and effort to user your product or service, but to actually pay money… you know you not only have a product that they think is valuable, but one that can cover some of its own costs – or better, cover all of its own costs. Or better, cover its own costs, with a little left over.
We’ve pretty much reached this point at the literacy non-profit I work for in Indonesia, and the potential is huge. Instead of looking at our bank balance and asking how many groups we can help, we’re looking at ourselves and asking how we can get better at what we do so that we can serve more groups – because the growth is paying for itself.
Our program is far from polished and perfect, but it seems to be working. In the old days we had a list of people waiting for our program – waiting for us to find the money to be able to train them. Now the people on the waiting list are finding their own money – and the wait is a lot shorter.
In fact, doing it this way has allowed us to serve more groups as a gift – not ‘for free’ but ‘at our expense, as a gift, because we love what you do’ – than we did back in the day when it was free.
Finding the clients who are eager to pay might well help you get your product or service to more of the people who are eager, but can’t.
Here’s a good way to build capacity: every time you do something new, open a googledoc (or your searchable, annotate-able editor of choice) and do the following:
Give it a name that you’ll be able to find in future, like – Howto Make a Transfer from OurBank
Use headings and subheadings to give titles to key sections
Use an ordered list (like this one) to list the steps
I like using subpoints too
Auto generate a table of contents
Put it in the place where you’re likely to look for it when you need it – a folder labeled ‘Howtos and workflows’ or the folder that contains other stuff relevant to the document
At the very least, the next time you do that piece of work you have spec for the job, saving you from having to waste time clicking around trying to remember how you did it last time. This is especially true in settings like Indonesia, where things like online banking are still far from ‘peak usability’. The document is a gift to your future self.
At best, you have a document that you can give to someone else – a team member or a new volunteer, who can follow it step by step and do the job so that you can do something new. Pow! You’ve developed the ability to do two things concurrently – or at least, you will have after a few tries with the document and a bit of back-and-forward commenting on the document.
Write several of these documents, give the formatting a bit of a brush up and you’re on your way to a manual for your key processes.
This is a riff on some of the processes suggested by Michael E. Gerber in his classic The E-Myth Revisited, which will get a post of ten of its own one day.
It’ll help you with all 4 of Mike Michalowicz’s 4 D’s from Clockwork: doing, deciding, delegating, designing.
P.S. If it looks like I missed a day, I didn’t – had to unpublish and republish to make a change.