Anything yet: never a better time

When should you start?

The internet feels saturated with apps, platforms, devices, and more than enough content to demand our attention for the next million years. Even if you could manage to squeeze in another tiny innovation, who would notice it among our miraculous abundance?

But, but… here is the thing. In terms of the internet, nothing has happened yet! The internet is still at the beginning of its beginning. It is only becoming. If we could climb into a time machine and journey 30 years into the future, and from that point look back to today, we’d realize that most of the greatest products running the lives of citizens in 2050 were not invented until after 2016. People in the future will look at their holodecks and wearable virtual reality contact lenses and downloadable avatars and AI interfaces and say, “Oh, you didn’t really have the internet” – or whatever they’ll call it – “back then.”

And they’d be right. Because from our perspective now, the greatest online things of the first half of this century are all before us. All this miraculous inventions are waiting for that crazy, no-on-told-me-it-was-impossible visionary to start grabbing the low-hanging fruit – the equivalent of the dot-com names of 1984.

Because here is another thing the graybeards in 2050 will tell you – Can you imagine how awesome it would be to be an innovator in 2016? It was a wide-open frontier! You could pick almost any category and add some AI to it, put it in the cloud. Few devices had more than one or two sensors in them, unlike the hundreds now. Expectations and barriers were low. It was easy to be the first. And then they would sigh, “Oh, if only we realized how possible everything was back then!”

So, the truth: Right now, today, in 2016 is the best time to start up. There has never been a better day in the whole of history to invent something. There has never been a better time with more opportunities, more openings, lower barriers, higher benefit/risk ratios, better returns, greater upside than now. Right now, this minute. This is moment that folks in the future will look back at and say, “Oh, to have been alive and well back then!”

The last 30 years has created a marvelous starting point, a solid platform to build truly great things. But what’s coming will be different, beyond, and other. The things we will make will be constantly, relentlessly becoming something else. And the coolest stuff of all has not been invented yet.

Today truly is a wide-open frontier. We are all becoming. It is the best time ever in human history to begin.

You are not too late.

Kevin Kelly – The Inevitable – from chapter 1: Becoming

Further reading:

GNU-GPL – a base of code

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 software.

For tools for making software.

How about for educational outcomes? For assessments?

For a set of tools and resources for running an organisation?

Stan Lee (1922-2018) – What If?

The exact cover of the Marvel What If that Dave’s brother kept in a plastic folder


Stan Lee was brilliant and prolific.

We know him for Spiderman, the X-men, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, Black Panther… for being the driving force behind Marvel Comics, now a multi-billion dollar, multi-media juggernaut.

It’s less well known that he started in the comics industry in 1939, aged seventeen, as a general dogsbody, lunch-fetcher and inkwell filler at Timely Comics (which would eventually become Marvel).

Lee must have had something about him – he became editor at 19 – but here’s the thing: he slogged it out writing comics – westerns, crime stories, horror and superhero work – for twenty two years without really hitting the big time. They say he chose Stan Lee as a pen name because he was worried he’d be embarrassed by his work in comics if he ever wrote the Great American Novel.

By the early 60s Lee was fed up, and ready to quit. The Fantastic Four was a last throw of the dice on his wife’s suggestion that he try writing the comics he wanted to write. There was nothing to lose.

He was forty-one years old.

The rest is history.

What if Stan Lee had never written the fantastic four?

Some takeaways:

Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 9

This is the ninth post in a series applying Seth Godin’s rules of bootstrapping (see also here) to building a non-profit organisation.

Rule 9: Become ever more professional

Professionals do it right, they make it work, and they don’t take it personally.

Seth Godin

Of course your non-profit organisation should be professional.

You need to: 

  • Show up – be there for the people you seek to serve
  • Show up – it takes time to get good at what you do
  • Show up – you need to go deep in the context that you’re serving, know your clients and their context really, really well. Few people do this
  • Show up – for your clients and your team, especially when you don’t feel like it today
  • Keep your promises
  • Do good work that no-one else can do (if only because no-one else will)
  • Make it work – which might mean going beyond your technical contribution and paying attention to the necessary ‘wrapper
  • Understand the full stack of skills that make your organisation’s work possible, and get a working knowledge of as many of them as you can
  • Specialise
  • Find partners, colleagues, friends who complement your skills and personality
  • Learn to get help, delegate
  • Do you work in the right way – find lasting solutions that don’t sacrifice things that are important to you on the way
  • Stay client-focused – there might be a ‘show’, and you might even have a big role, but it isn’t about you
  • Stay honest – the professional pushes back against donors with ideas that won’t work, or won’t help even if they do work, or that aren’t really about the clients (see Rule 1)
  • Stay honest – be clear about what you do and don’t, explain what’s not working, own your mistakes
  • Find the right price for your work – a price that enables you to do it sustainably and with space for human connection, ensuring of course that your work is worth more than people pay for it
  • Create more value than you capture
  • Communicate clearly – you have to take responsibility for knowing your audience, for being clear and convincing, for stopping from time to time to make sure you’re being understood
  • Build assets – deliberately do things that will make it easier tomorrow
  • Be there early
  • Start on time
  • Stop on time
  • Stopping on time means, with enough time to talk to people afterwards
  • Create boundaries that allow you to do good work, and to be generous
  • Be committed – overcome The Resistance (ala Pressfield)
  • Read and learn – all the time
  • Read within your field
  • Read outside your field
  • Read fiction, poetry – they’ll enrich what you do
  • Apply what you learn – try new things
  • Understand how new technologies have and are changing your work
  • Try to see the future
  • Think about what you do
  • Write about what you do
  • Connect with others that do what you do, or things like it
  • Be generous – share what you know

I’m stopping writing now, so that I can go and show up for some people by making pancakes.

Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 6: Scale is not a Reward (3)

This is the sixth-and-third post in a series applying Seth Godin’s rules of bootstrapping (see also here) to building a non-profit organisation.

So what do finding the right size for your organisation and the Free Prize Inside approach to scale look like in practice?

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.

And look what it’s done for them:

(source: geekwire) – supposed to be an embed

*This is not to say that AWS is the most efficient way to do this – apparently dropbox is saving a fortune by migrating off AWS. But AWS allowed them to test and validate their business model before they spent huge amounts on hardware.

Scale, the free prize and the non-profit (1)

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.

Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 3: Serve Clients Eager to Pay for what you do (part 2 of 4)

This is the third-and-a-half in a series applying Seth Godin’s rules of bootstrapping (see also here) to building a non-profit organisation.

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.

Do it now, and start small

Here’s a great case study in doing it now and starting small from Fast Company founder Alan Webber. It’s about how Muhammad Yunus founded Grameen Bank, and ended up helping millions of families to a more prosperous future. Weber Concludes:

Start small. Do what you can with something you care about so deeply that you simply can’t not do it. Stay focused, close to the ground, rooted in everyday reality. Trust your instincts and your eyes: do what needs doing any way you can, whether the experts agree or not. Put practice ahead of theory and results ahead of conventional wisdom.

Start small. If it works, keep doing it. If it doesn’t work, change what you’re doing until you find something that does work. Start small, start with whatever is close at hand, start with something you care deeply about. But as Muhammad Yunus told the KaosPilots, start.

Alan Webber, Rule #38 from his Rules of Thumb

Read the whole piece at TimFerris.com.

The meat is on the street

John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard movement of churches, wasn’t renowned as a systematic religious teacher.

Apparently people would ask him “John, when are you going to teach us the deep and crucial stuff – where’s the meat?”

And he’d answer: “The meat is on the street.”

That is, “Go out into the world. You will learn the deep truths of faith by doing it.”

Books, podcasts, blogs are very useful in learning to make positive change in the world. Ideas are wonderful tools.

But we learn our most important lessons by doing – by taking action.

The meat is on the street.

Go!

A crappy bridge

I didn’t manage to photograph the bridge, but I’ll post one of a similar bridge next time I see one.

It was a pretty sorry affair over a murky stream, just wide enough for a motorbike. Bamboo slats, no siderails, a strangely drooping curve.

Crappy infrastructure.

But here’s the thing: that bridge is an act of will. It’s there because someone wanted to cross the river, and they made a bridge.

It’s easy to criticise crappy infrastructure in developing countries and not ask this question: who built it, for whose needs?

It’s easy to talk about cultutes of dependency, and there is often reason to. But ask yourself this question:

When was the last time you built a bridge?

Hybrids (4): Intersections and you

This is the fourth of a series on the role of hybrids in innovation. This is where I put the ideas of the previous posts to work using the principle of ‘combinatorial innovation’ to look for fertile soil for cross-breeds between my work in educational development and other areas.

Translation and Contextualisation

In a way, this whole post is about these two things. Can you take information – ideas, tools and resources – and make them useful and accessible in a new place? Where do you have the local knowledge – local to place, or a set of people, or a field of activity – that is needed so that things from another place can be useful to others?

Open standards

The worldwide web is possible because of a shared, consensual, non-propriety and completely open agreement about how to mark up text for display in your computer’s web browser (HTML).

Could an open standard help people and products to work together in your industry? Could you be the one to start writing and popularising it?

I wonder if education in Indonesia could benefit from a set of open standards:

  • For desirable outcomes for education as a whole
  • For standards and competencies at different stages of children (and adults’) development in different subjects (e.g. literacy, mathematics) that could allow ‘interoperability’ between educational resources made by different groups
  • For what makes a good lesson, curriculum, or resource (e.g. suggested standards to guide writers of children’s books)
  • For how to design the above
  • For how to train teachers to use the above

I’ve got lots of questions about how far consensus can go on these things, but I think there’s a lot of potential.

Further Reading

Open source

More than 85% of the world’s smartphones run on the Android operating system. Android is a version of Linux, a free operating system that is developed by a community of volunteers and professionals across the world. Being open source means that not only is the software free to use, but the source code – the bits of computer program used to make Android – are available to all to study, edit and upgrade. Volunteers gain so much from the system, that when they improve a piece of the software (often to solve a problem that they face), they’re happy to feed the improvements back into it, creating more value for everyone in the process.

Can you ‘open source’ all or part of what you do, creating value for everyone in the process?

Digital

Perhaps this should have been first on the list. What do cheaper computing, cheaper data and storage, cheaper video, cheaper sensors of all sorts – mean to you? What would it mean if they became free – because relatively, they are becoming so.

What do you need to know, what skills do you need to develop, so you can make the most of these, and make them useful to others?

Physical

What’s getting faster, cheaper, easier to use? For example…

  • Physically transporting goods from one place to another in a world of driverless cars and maybe, drones
  • Electronic products
  • Print-on-demand

Virtual

What can you do online – maybe even automatically – that previously had to be done in person?

Actual

In a world where we can do so many things online, what are the things that really are better when we’re together in person? Why are they better in person, and how can we make them better still?

AI

Of course AI. I know almost nothing about it, but finding the people a level or two above me is high on the list. It might not be for you, but make sure that you know that for a fact.

Likewise blockchain.

Information. Architecture?

A lot of these things come down to information being more abundant, and more accessible than ever before. Is there value in looking deeply at how your field hangs together, and how it intersects with other fields, and clarifying things – for you and everyone else?

This is fun – this video with Peter Morville is a decent place to start.

Tools and Howtos

Can you make and share tools to help other people do what you do? Can you teach people how to use them?

Thanks to…

It goes without saying that Kevin Kelly, Tim O’Reilly – and everyone mentioned in my earlier WTF post are the major sources of these ideas.