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The Culture of Startups

Holy crap! I just discovered another article (via Asterisk) entitled What Business Can Learn From Open Source. Why I’m so excited is that this is SO CLOSE to what I’ve been searching for with regards to defining the culture of the Web. While the article talks about things from an open source perspective, what I found interesting was how often comparisons were made to how startups work. This got me very excited because I’ve realized a couple months back that I would prefer working for a startup company if I could get the chance. I wasn’t really sure why but after reading this article, everything makes perfect sense. It is the culture of startup that I crave so much because it fits in with what I desire and more importantly what I can offer (which is something that a normal company probably wouldn’t be interested in).

Feeling / Caring / Loving / Passionate

As I mentioned in my last post, I strongly believe that feeling emotional about something gives you a greater feeling of connectedness with others.

That’s why the business world was so surprised by one lesson from open source: that people working for love often surpass those working for money.

This has already been mentioned in numerous business magazines (i.e. Fast Company) as the golden key to the future of business. If you can obtain passionate employees who care about what they are doing, then you can achieve almost anything. There is one big obstacle to this though. The existing culture of the business. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen companies looking for “passionate dynamic creative people”, yet I just laugh my ass off because once they get inside the company that person will be put literally into a cubicle box with rules that state not to “step outside of it” if they want to be considered a “good employee”. Bullshit! Good employees are those who push the boundaries of the company because they do care about it. If they didn’t care about it then they wouldn’t say anything because they don’t care what happens to the company. Therefore, businesses that want passionate people need to be easy-going enough to let their employees be passionate.

Open / Trusting / Flexible / Equal

Trust is a crucial component in any relationship. If trust isn’t there, then more often than not the relation will never last that long. Once people trust someone, they let down their guard and be themselves. They open up about themselves and are more flexible with that person because every relationship has some give and take. If all you are doing is taking though, then once again, the relationship will probably not last that long.

Things are different in a startup. Often as not a startup begins in an apartment. Instead of matching beige cubicles they have an assortment of furniture they bought used. They work odd hours, wearing the most casual of clothing. They look at whatever they want online without worrying whether it’s “work safe.” The cheery, bland language of the office is replaced by wicked humor. And you know what? The company at this stage is probably the most productive it’s ever going to be.

This is so true! I remember when I first started working with the web firm that I used to work for. We worked in a slightly seedy part of town out of a long single-roomed apartment that we nicknamed the “submarine” because it was long and slightly dark with a set of windows at end. The feeling working within this environment was incredible! Since we were all in the same room, it gave this incredible feeling of togetherness. You could pretty much overhear any conversation going on and you could jump in if it interested you. Even more so, everyone helped out with what needed to be done and you never really thought about people’s titles since we really didn’t use them unless a client needed one. We were just a group of people who enjoyed working together creating things and solving problems. It was such an amazing experience that I even remembered commenting to one of the owners of the company that “I enjoy working so much here, that if I win millions in the lottery, I’m still going to show up for work.” Can you imagine the feeling I must have had to have said that? Can you imagine every single person who has a job today having that same sort of feeling? The productivity, creativity, and innovation that would be achieved in the world would be incredible.

Whole / Connected / Shared / Diverse

When I’m writing or hacking I spend as much time just thinking as I do actually typing. Half the time I’m sitting drinking a cup of tea, or walking around the neighborhood. This is a critical phase— this is where ideas come from— and yet I’d feel guilty doing this in most offices, with everyone else looking busy. Working in crappy informal spaces is one of the things startups do right without realizing it. As soon as you get into an office, work and life start to drift apart.

That is one of the key tenets of professionalism. Work and life are supposed to be separate. But that part, I’m convinced, is a mistake.

Again this makes perfect sense and it reveals a lot of why I’ve been so frustrated lately. I’ve been fooling around with various business ideas but everything I start working on doesn’t feel right, as though something is missing. I may come up with an interesting idea but it feel lifeless and disconnected in some way when I try to put it together. The same problem happens when I focus on a more personal site. Something feels like it is missing. Now I realize what it is. I am the missing ingredient! A person isn’t just their job and a person isn’t just their personal life. A person is like a gem with many faceted sides, all working together to create something unique and wonderful. The Web is the same way. It is owned by no one person, instead it is shared and collaborated upon by many. This complexity and diversity is what makes each person and the Web itself special.

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Feeling Connected – The Sequel

Doh! <slaps forehead> How could I be such an idiot? I was thinking about what I said in my last post about “Feeling Connected” and was remembering back to a comment I’d made on a website about gaming culture, about how emotions are a strong element of the word cinematic (i.e. movie-like). Then I started thinking about stories and wondered what is the core element of a store that connects us. I realized it isn’t the story itself. The story needs an ingredient for that connection to occur. Think about it. If I told a story about how I went to the corner store to grab a litre of milk, you’d be like “Who cares!”. Exactly. Yet, when thousands of people shared their stories about 9/11, it was the emotions that raged through those stories that connected people all around the world and make them care. We shared in their sorrow and loss emotionally. Of course the icing on the cake is when I looked at my subject title for my last post which was “Feeling Connected”. When I saw “feeling” in this instance, it isn’t referring to “touching” something, it is referring to the emotional feelings inside of us. So when I say I’m “feeling connected” to everyone around the world, I’m really saying I’m feeling “emotionally” connected with everyone. Our emotions are what connect us the most because emotions (such as love) create the greatest invisible bonds or connections between each of us.

So how are these emotional connections made? Well, I think pretty much as I said in my last post. It is almost as though when we hear a story that stirs our emotions, this virtual holodeck is created in our imagination which make us share the experience within the story. It is the same thing that happens when we watch a great movie. Here’s my comment from the website on gaming culture captures what I’m trying to say here and wraps it up nicely.

If you’ve ever read a really great book or watched an incredible movie, ask yourself what made you enjoy it so much? For me it is not just the vividness of the environment that is being relayed but more importantly it is the emotional connections that are created between myself and the medium. It is these emotional connections that put me in the shoes of my hero because emotionally I’ve been in the same situation he or she may be put in. The only difference is usually the scope of the conflict. I may face dissention from a group of co-workers and have to win back their support, whereas he may face dissention among the crew of his pirate ship and have to win back their support. Different scope, same emotions.

Again let me refer to what I said yesterday about the difference between having sex and making love because again this is a perfect example. Having sex is like a story without an emotional element, whereas making love is a story with a deep emotional element to it. And I think this is why I’m having this “empty” feeling with regards to the Web right now. I’m not finding very many “emotional connections” on the Web right now and thus it isn’t giving me the meaning I’m looking for. If we could create connections that someone contain deep emotional meaning for us all though, then I think the Web would finally make us all truly “feel” connected instead of justing being connected. The final question is what is required to create these emotional connections? Do we just need to change our content and structure it to create these emotional connections or does it require a technological evolution of the Web to achieve this?

Oh, one last thought. Remember I said I couldn’t understand why I feel so connected out in nature, all alone? Well, if we look at emotions as being the ingredient for this state of connectedness, then it fits in perfectly. I “feel” connected within nature because of all the emotions I am having within it which in turn makes me feel connected with everyone else.

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Feeling Connected

I just want to put this down before I forget about it. I’ve been noticing something very strange lately. Basically the more time I spend on the computer because I’m hungering for that “connection” with others on this planet, the less connected I actually feel. In effect, our world is more connected than it has ever been, yet people are more disconnected than they have ever been. Why?

And what is more amazing is how come it has been this way for so long, yet nothing has seemed to change? You see Charlie Chaplin hinted at this in his Final Speech of The Great Dictator back in 1940 before computers and the Web really took off.

We have developed speed but we have shut ourselves in: machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical, our cleverness hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little: More than machinery we need humanity; More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.

What stood out for me were these words: “we…feel too little” (need more meaning to connect us emotionally), “we need humanity” (and humanity was mentioned in Tim Berners-Lee’s speech), “we need kindness and gentleness” (need a culture that promotes these values).

And yet if I watch a movie, read a book, or listening to music and immerse myself in what is being said in these mediums, then I actually feel more connected to the world around me than I do sitting upon the computer. Why?

I’m guessing because all of these things (movies, music, and books) are basically just stories. But that’s just it. I think we as a people don’t really realize how powerful stories are in the sense of how much complex data (for lack of a better word) can be stored within something so simple. In other words, a single story can provide a multitude of connections and meanings within it. To me it almost feels like these multitude of stories are creating invisible bonds and connections between each of us that creates this “Web of life”. Yet if you look at the Web with all of its own connections and links, it seems so empty in comparison because it seems like these connections are so one dimensional. Another way to look at it would be comparing the complex connections within a story to that of a string of DNA. My question, though, is can we enhance the Web so that these connections we make can actually can contain complex information as easily as a story does? Is there a way to add meaning to these connections?

But here’s another twist that blows this idea out of the water. How come when I go outside and sit in the middle of nature alone, with no one around me, I again feel more connected to this planet and everyone around me again? I’m not hearing a single story while I’m sitting there, yet I still feel so connected. Why? What am I connecting to in this instance? Why do I have the same thoughts and feelings as I do when I’m hearing a story? It is because of the sensory stimuli that I’m getting which is firing off emotions and thoughts in my head? Is that what stories do for us? Do stories create this same sensory stimuli because the stories are played out in a our imagination like a virtual holodeck and thus make us experience the same sort of sensory stimuli which again enages our emotions and minds?

In closing, I think the Web is connecting us, which is why so many people are draw to it, and yet at the same time it isn’t providing a deep and rich enough connection that we would get in comparison to a story, which is why I think there is this sort of “emptiness” with the Web as well. We need to figure out how to add these deep and rich connections to the Web, so that it can evolve and connect us in a much more deeper and meaningful way.

I just had one more thought and it is kind of a weird one but I think it is a good example. Think about the difference between just having sex versus making love to someone you truly care about. If it is just sex where you are focused more on your own needs versus your partners, you more often than not feel exhausted and still feel “empty” afterwards, as though you haven’t been satisified. Yet when you are fully in love and you place more of an emphasis on your partner than yourself, then afterwards you often feel so satisfied, energized, and connected with that partner. Hehe, so….in effect, the Web right now just feels like cheap sex! You keep craving it but it isn’t really satisfying you because it is lacking that deep meaningful connection.

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Connections of Meaningful Relationships

Tim Berners-Lee being interviewed back in 2003 by a BBC program called Go Digital.

TBL: The first hypertext programs I had, what I found was interesting was circles and arrows diagrams of our lives.

When you’ve got a white board or black board and you are trying to explain something to someone, or trying to design something, a new series, a new building, a new organisation, you start drawing circles and arrows between them.

These arrows can be about this person works for this person, it’s about relationships between things. It can be family trees, it can be design trees, all kinds of things. I was interested in capturing this information and that’s why I was interested in web-like things.

In fact when you start drawing circles and arrows, often people try to make it into a tree to help keep their minds straight, but really it’s a web, things can connect in this world to all kinds of other things.

An earlier program I’d had before the web, way back in 1980, allowed you to say when you made a link, allowed you to say what sort of things were, so this is an organisation, this is a person and the relationship between them is an employee of that organisation.

So the nice things about that is if you have told the computer that, then the computer can do things like draw up organisational bar charts, it can find out all the dependencies, and it can start answering interesting questions for you.

GD: And this is the kind of thing that tends to be missing at the moment. When you do a web search, it doesn’t tell you the meaning of the results the web search throws up. So this semantic web is actually finding meaning in web pages?

There’s something here that I’m not seeing fully. I’ve bolded things above that seems to really stand out. The words “lives”, “relationships”, and “meaning” though all really seem to fit in when discussing a “culture”.

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Cultural Environment of the Web

Does the environment of the Web encourage these things?

  • to play
  • be curious (explore, research)
  • to share
  • be honest (transparent, truthful)
  • to trust
  • to listen
  • to appreciate (equality)
  • to rant
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General

Stop Thinking of Yourself as a Company

The following sentence is found in the final chapter of The Cluetrain Manifesto.

But if you think of yourself as a company, you’ve got much bigger worries. We strongly suggest you repeat the following mantra as often as possible until you feel better: “I am not a company. I am a human being.”

When I reread this, something “clicked” again inside of me. It is the same feeling I got when I read The Cluetrain Manifesto the first time. And yet, after these past few years nothing has seemed to change. Most companies still don’t seem human. Even more so, I’ve tried multiple times to start my own company and yet everytime I did so, it didn’t feel right. It felt like something was missing. I kept following the formula of what a “business” should do, yet it just didn’t feel right to me as a person. I think the greatest problem I kept having was that everytime I tried to create my own business it didn’t feel like it really represented me as a person. Instead it represented something entirely different that I didn’t like.

I really would love to have my own business. And yet I don’t think I can until I understand how I can best represent myself as a person instead of a business. I’m hoping that discovering these cultural values from the Web will bring me closer to discovering how I can run a business and yet still “feel” human.

Another question is that maybe if we want to evolve we need to start redefining what a business is then? Or maybe we need to find an entirely different word to use instead of company or business?

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Cluetrain: The End is the Beginning

Just reread the last chapter of The Cluetrain Manifesto, specifically the very last paragraph of the book. This should have been the very first paragraph of the book.

Imagine a world where everyone was constantly learning, a world where what you wondered was more interesting than what you knew, and curiosity counted for more than certain knowledge. Imagine a world where what you gave away was more valuable than what you held back, where joy was not a dirty word, where play was not forbidden after your eleventh birthday. Imagine a world in which the business of business was to imagine worlds people might actually want to live in someday. Imagine a world created by the people, for the people not perishing from the earth forever. Yeah.

Imagine that.

This definitely gives hints as to what this new culture should be.

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Business Operations Using Web Culture

Another important question. How would a business operate differently if its culture matched that of the Web? If businesses should be leading by example, how should these businesses that are trying to promote blogging consulting services be operating themselves? Are these businesses pushing blogging consulting for other businesses really practicing what they preach?

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The Web is the Culture of the World

I’ve been doing some thinking about what I said in my post below about the BBC interview with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, where I said “The Web is the culture of the world.” I immediately started wondering if the Web truly was our culture, what are its values then? Even more so, I started wondering if one could define these cultural values could people start using them to get more in synch with the changes that are happening in the world. In effect, my greatest question was if a business started following these cultural values, what would happen? Would it fail miserably or would it become incredibly successful? And of course if it became successful then wouldn’t it be the perfect example and role model for other businesses to follow who also want to change with the times. This is extremely important because the only way other businesses will get on board is if they can actually see the beneficial results that other companies are having. In other words, lead by example.

Thinking about Business Logs and other similar ventures trying to show businesses how blogging can help them, I thought I’d find the answer there about these cultural values. I didn’t. More than anything I kept hearing more about how the technology of blogs could help a business without much emphasis on the cultural change needed for blogging to actually work. There were hints about culture but they didn’t come up as much as I wanted them to.

Finally, I remembered about my talks with David Weinberger some years back and that reminded me of The Cluetrain Manifesto. Were these cultural values of the Web defined within it? After rereading some key chapters I discovered that, yes, they were but…not as evidently as I wanted them to be. I think the closest thing I found to a list of cultural values was a list in Chapter Five: The Hyperlinked Organization (pg 125) entitled The Character of the Web.

The Character of the Web

  • Hyperlinked
  • Decentralized
  • Hypertime
  • Open, direct access
  • Rich data
  • Broken
  • Borderless

While these are definitely not what I would call the character traits of an individual, I still think they can lead to discovering and defining these cultural values that the Web is helping us to remember. That’s right. I honestly believe, as it was mentioned in The Cluetrain Manifesto, that these cultural values are nothing new. If anything, they have existed with us for thousands of years until only recently and with the proliferation of the Web we are once again rediscovering these values from our past. As I mentioned before, cultures influence people just as much people influence cultures. We are doing this on the Web by sharing stories and having conversations. In doing so we are not only passing on what is important to us individually but also what is important to us as a culture and people. It is cultural information that can influence and guide us into this future of change.

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Sir Tim Berners-Lee and the Humanity of the Web

BBC News interviews Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the Web, about the Web today.

I feel that we need to individually work on putting good things on it, finding ways to protect ourselves from accidentally finding the bad stuff, and that at the end of the day, a lot of the problems of bad information out there, things that you don’t like, are problems with humanity.

This is humanity which is communicating over the web, just as it’s communicating over so many other different media. I think it’s a more complicated question we have to; first of all, make it a universal medium, and secondly we have to work to make sure that that it supports the sort of society that we want to build on top of it.

The Web is the culture of the world. Cultures not only influence the people within them but people in turn influence the culture themselves. The Web is what we have made it to be and it can be whatever we wish it to be. We are connecting to it everyday more than just electronically. In fact, over time we’ll realize more and more that everything around us, including each one of us, is connected more than we know.