For the last week, John Muir quotes have been floating into my head. Uninvited, but not unwelcome. This one in particular has been gently tugging at my attention:
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
Some of you already know why my thoughts have been drifting in this direction. Starting today, I am a free agent, with Ribbonfarm as my base of operations. Some have asked me about the personal story behind this move, but that is frankly too mundane to share. Some have also asked about my business model. I’d share that if I actually had one.
So in lieu of either, let me tell you about the one thing I have sort of worked out: a business philosophy. I call it my “Wild Thoughts” business philosophy, and it was put to the test the very week I sketched it out on the proverbial paper-napkin: two friends independently sent me the same provocative article that’s been doing the rounds, Julien Smith’s The Future of Blogs is Paid Access. Reading it, I immediately realized that this was one decision about the future of Ribbonfarm that I could not postpone. For a variety of reasons, if I was going to consider paid access, I’d have to decide now.
I won’t keep you guessing: I decided against paid access or walled gardens of any sort. Ribbonfarm and the Be Slightly Evil email list are going to remain free. There will be no paywalls, no premium content and no paid members-only communities.
What’s more, Ribbonfarm will not be morphing into a content-marketing vehicle, with its performance measured in terms of landing page conversion percentages for book sales or consulting leads.
The blog is not about supporting the business and keeping it profitable. The business is about supporting the blog and keeping it free.
In short, Ribbonfarm will continue on its current quixotic quest, seeking its own Ribbonfarmesque Buddha-nature. Maybe one day it will attain enlightenment and you will notice a halo around the logo. The day that happens, the entries will go from 3000-word epic posts to 140-character nuggets of Zen wisdom.
Paid access in Julien’s sense is also about monetizing access to your personal attention (his argument is roughly, “weak links should be monetized”). I now get enough comments and inbound email through the blog that this is in fact a very tempting thought.
I reached the same conclusion there. Except for a basic spam filter, I am not going to gate-keep access to my attention using any mechanism other than my own head. Whether you are a weak link, stranger or childhood friend, if you can hijack my attention, you can have it. No Google Priority Inbox, no whitelist, no a priori comment moderation. As a far more interesting man than I will ever be liked to say, my brain is open. For a blogger whose raison d’etre is unusual perspectives, automated attention allocation is far too dangerous. I cannot outsource my core competency.
If GTD can’t keep up, keep me human, and bring me back to Inbox Zero every few weeks, I’d rather quit blogging than let an algorithm decide for me what is interesting and what is not.
I am not being nice or altruistic. The decision is a natural consequence of the Wild Thoughts business philosophy.
“Wildness” I suppose, is an idea that has never been far from my consciousness. When I migrated from a traditional corporate office to a remote home office, I wrote about the experience in a post I titled On Going Feral. So perhaps it is not surprising that I am framing this bigger move, at least for myself, as another step towards my barbarian self.
My thoughts on the subject of wildness though, are complicated.
I am simultaneously wary of, and attracted to, the atavistic neo-primitivism latent in the writings of naturalist-philosophers like Muir. Where I find it in unreconstructed forms, such as the Paleo diet movement, Sedona vortex spirituality, or even in my own older, more naive thinking, I am inclined to make fun of it. But you cannot really argue with the idea that there is such a thing as the call of the wild. Here’s another eloquent Muir quote that describes the urge better than I could:
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountain is going home; that wildness is necessity; that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”
This is less a thought about nature, and more a thought about wildness, whether you find it in a bleak cyberpunk landscape or deep inside Yosemite National Park. Certainly, the Muir Woods outside San Francisco set a high threshold for what it means for something to be wild, but you can find that same sense of wildness in container shipping terminals and railroad classification yards. The truly worthwhile things that humans create are wild things; things that channel, rather than tame, the wildness of nature; generative things that reshape our world in its own image.
The lure of the illegible, the mysterious, the organically creative-destructive, is more fundamental than a mere attraction to “nature,” simplistically defined. Nature includes human beings and the things humans create, which means Muir’s idea that ”none of Nature’s landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild” applies to human-created wildnernesses as well.
Ribbonfarm, I like to think in my more romantic moments, is one such human-created wilderness. If you ever find that it is getting less wild (wild as in woods, not as in “crazy”), warn me.
The Faith of the Gnomes
I suppose I am a bit of an exception among people who go down the free-agency road. I had no really compelling reasons to leave my job, and many excellent reasons to stay. Unlike many who go down this route, the job I just left afforded me plenty of autonomy, no pointy-haired bosses, rewarding work with exceptionally interesting colleagues, and all the benefits of the free-agent lifestyle with none of the risks. I have no early retirement stash squirreled away. Just enough saved to last me a few months. The closest thing I have to a business model is the famous Underpants Gnomes business model.
- Publish Tempo
I do have a modest freelance writing gig lined up at a new site to be launched in March, The Brain Yard, and a first consulting engagement lined up with an intriguing startup, allthis, for a few hours a week. But don’t let that fool you. The first was a shot in the dark that landed in an unexpected place, and the second was an instance of unsolicited inbound serendipity on Quora. Together, they’ll help stretch out my resources a little longer, but they aren’t going to replace the steady income I am walking away from.
You are not listening to a Man with a Plan.
About the only thing rational about this move is that the timing was right. My work at Xerox, with Trailmeme, was at a stage where I could gracefully hand over the reins, without too much disruption. My book nearing completion provided me with something with which to make the leap (a wise mentor once told me that you can’t just make abstract leaps; every significant leap is made with something). That’s the sum total of the due deliberation that’s gone into this move. Of course, I have toyed with tons of ideas, but for perhaps the first time in my life, I find that I am not attached enough to any of them to make it the plan. Which means I am truly open to possibilities for the first time in my life. It is a funny feeling.
So you are listening to someone who is taking a ready-fire-aim leap into wildness, motivated by little more than sheer bloody-mindedness; a “let’s make this interesting” impulse. This sort of move is not exactly new for me. ”Sheer bloody-mindedness” is actually the best explanation for every major career move in my life.
But after nearly 18 years of such moves, I am finally beginning to understand where these bloody-minded urges arise. They arise in the call of the wild, a call that somehow, deep down, you know you can trust. Another John Muir quote captures the thought:
“Take a course in good water and air; and in the eternal youth of Nature you may renew your own. Go quietly, alone; no harm will befall you.”
For some balance, lest you think I am endorsing the vacuous philosophies in The Secret, let me also add this quote from Apocalypse Now, for your consideration:
“I love the smell of napalm in the morning… The smell, you know that gasoline smell…”
Elsewhere, in Muir’s thoughts about death, you find evidence that he does not mean “no harm” in a literal sense. He recognized that the wild is not about safety in the sense of avoidance of physical harm or risk of death (I mean, come on, there are grizzlies and things out there, and people have to cut off their own arms with machetes sometimes). It is about existential safety in a place where death and injury somehow manage to appear beautiful. In the wild, the stark inevitability of death is inseparable from the potential for renewal and rebirth that it offers.
Business Philosophies vs. Business Models
There are many who write eloquently about lifestyle businesses, and practice what they preach. A few such bloggers have been thoughtful commenters here or have posted responses to my posts on their own blogs: I find Jacob Fisker, Dan Andrews, Sebastian Marshall, Erik Marcus, Xianhang Zhang and Zachary Burt to be consistently insightful on the subject, and I have been endlessly stimulated by my conversations with them. Even though I don’t always agree with them, I definitely plan on stealing from their playbooks.
One advantage to being relatively late to the party is that you get to study what others have done before you. It strikes me that every interesting lifestyle business appears to be driven by a business philosophy rather than a business model.
So what exactly is the difference?
The difference is this:
A business model is about how to make money.
A business philosophy is about redefining money.
This distinction also explains why the whole area of business philosophies has been mostly restricted to one-person lifestyle businesses (or at best, married couples). Defining money is something only countries get to do. Individuals and couples can get away with it only because their actions are too inconsequential for governments to worry about. In that respect, lifestyle businesses are more like nations than businesses; they are founded on the basis of social contracts with yourself that include a definition of money. The term “lifestyle business” has stuck, but keep this analogy to nations in mind.
For larger groups though, especially where external investors are involved, not only is it intellectually harder to get everybody to agree to the same non-standard definition of money, it is also somewhere between unethical and illegal to attempt to create one. You don’t get much legal freedom to define “maximize shareholder value” unless you are the only shareholder.
With hindsight, this seems completely obvious. Ever since Tim Ferriss first explained his micro-global time-money arbitrage equation in The Four-Hour Work Week, every third lifestyle business I encounter seems to be based on redefining time and money in some interesting way. You don’t have to attempt this though. There are many lifestyle businesses that don’t bother with such redefinition and simply adopt the business philosophy of traditional businesses. That is in fact what Julien Smith did in his post. If you define money in the usual way, the conclusion that “the future of blogging is paid access,” is almost inevitable.
A lifestyle business offers you the option (but not the obligation) to redefine money for yourself, and your relationship to it.
Exercising the redefinition option involves real risk. A business philosophy is a falsifiable construct. I am placing certain bets by eschewing paid access when it is all the rage, for instance.
A business philosophy is not what I characterized as “loser delusions” in Part IV of the Gervais Principle series (yes, yes, the finale is on its way; I’ll post it before Will Ferrell replaces Steve Carell, I promise). Choosing economic exile by redefining money is not a nominal move. It is a substantive one.
“I am not going to sell my soul” is not a business philosophy. It is petulance waiting to grow up into resentment.
“So what if I am not making six figures, I have a great family and amazing friends” is not a business philosophy. It is rationalization.
“Starving artist” is only a compliment if starvation as a spectacle is part of your performance-art act.
So a business philosophy really only has teeth if it redefines money in an interesting and sound way that actually works. This means making and testing falsifiable assertions about the interplay of time and money in your individual life. But the actual macro-economics and micro-economics of this idea are a subject for another day.
Finally, a business philosophy is also not a normative construct like a mission or vision. It is about viewing the economic realities of life in a way that helps you make financial choices.
So a business philosophy, at its simplest, is a motto about money that actually works. Possibly you have one too.
For me, the motto is “Wild Thoughts.” So what does that mean, and what kind of view of money is implied by it?
Where the Wild Thoughts Are
The simplest explanation of Wild Thoughts philosophy is in the children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are. Max the little boy in the book, gets called “wild thing” by his busy mother one day, and retreats in anger to an imaginary land where he meets and stares down Wild Things.
But he gets lonely, and comes back, to find his supper waiting for him.
Ribbonfarm is where my Wild Thoughts are. The book, Tempo, was born here. Even Trailmeme was born here, as an idea for a plugin to make this jungle navigable (the name should be a hint). I suspect every interesting thing that happens to me for the rest of my life will somehow trace its ancestry to Ribbonfarm.
Wild Thoughts philosophy, I’ll be the first to admit, isn’t for everybody. It works for me because I mainly make a living by offering people ideas to gamble with.
But that’s the whole point of lifestyle businesses and lifestyle design. You get to make up your own philosophy, succeed or fail, and either try again or go back to work for somebody who has a better philosophy of business than you do.
Fortunately, my time in paycheck-land has been rewarding enough that I’ll have no problems calling this a mini-retirement and going back to it, if I have to. I’d like this free agent thing to work out, but I harbor no deep resentments towards the paycheck lifestyle.
But why and how does Wild Thoughts philosophy work for me?
You see, the Wild Thoughts that can hijack your attention in interesting ways only appear if access to your attention is fundamentally open and wild. They can’t cross paywalls, toll booths and velvet ropes. They can’t get past secretaries and agents. Most of all, they have no idea how to get inside echo chambers. Or to put it another way, to restrict access to attention is to deliberately blinker yourself.
Finding Wild Thoughts is one end of things. Putting them somewhere is the other piece of the puzzle. For me, Ribbonfarm is where I put Wild Thoughts once I find them, and before I decide what, if anything to do with them.
In most cases the answer is “nothing.” It is not the Life Purpose of every Wild Thought to create economic wealth for humans. So Ribbonfarm is not really a farm, but a sort of protected nature preserve for Wild Thoughts. To charge for access, I’d have to turn it into a zoo, and put the Wild Thoughts into miserable little cages. The Wild Thoughts that want to self-domesticate and earn a living outside the nature preserve can go ahead and do that. They’ll make their way in the wider world as best they can. That’s the path the Tempo is on. It began as a Wild Thought on Ribbonfarm that wanted to do more with its life, outside the nature preserve. We’ll see how it fares.
To go back to the analogy to nations, restricting access to your attention in arbitrary ways (or worse, with entry fees) is like maintaining a tight immigration policy for ideas that can ultimately kill your thinking through a lack of incoming diversity. You never know where the next interesting Wild Thought will come from. It might come from a beggar, it might come from a celebrity. It might come from a bestselling book, or it might come from the sun glinting off a trash can. It might even be buried in the spam in your spam folder. Sometimes I look through the spam folder at the actual spam, not for misclassified things.
Everybody finds Wild Thoughts to the extent that they remain open, but not everybody blogs them. And not every blog is a Wild Thoughts blog.
But if you do blog your Wild Thoughts in a Wild Thoughts blog, restricting access is like restricting access to a National Park.
Governments do usually charge for that, but that’s only because the kinds that occupy real estate are so darn expensive to protect. I can’t pretend that’s true for the blog: as I’ve said elsewhere at some point, I have more free publishing power at my fingertips today than the entire world did, during the time of Gutenberg (if WordPress dies as an open-source product, all bets are off).
The catch is, a Wild Thoughts blog can only be a source of renewal and rebirth if it remains wild. For that, it must remain free. In a way, I am like Max, and I’ve decided not to go back for my supper from the land of Wild Thoughts. Instead, I’ve pitched a tent inside, and put up a trading post at the periphery. Visiting me in the woods is free. Stuff at the trading post costs money.
This Wild Thoughts metaphor also provides a good heuristic for pricing creative work. The things I do are going to be priced in proportion to how civilized and domesticated they are. Ideas, fortunately, do not need protection of the “take only pictures, leave only footprints” variety. An idea that you find in a Wild Thoughts blog, unlike an interesting leaf or twig in the forest, is still there for others if you pick it up for yourself.
And that’s as far as I’ve gotten with my Wild Thoughts philosophy of business. It’s turning out to be quite fertile for me, and making every decision easy. I’ll post updates as I evolve it.
Where to Now?
So where does that leave me? How do I pay the rent? In my Underpants Gnomes, business model, what is ?????.
I don’t know, but if you like the Wild Thoughts philosophy, and would like to support me in pursuing it, there are several things you can do.
- Continue reading, sharing and adding to (via comments, response blogs and emails) the Wild Thoughts I find and put on Ribbonfarm. Warn me if things start getting too civilized.
- If you like protecting wild places, and you’d like to contribute above buy-me-a-coffee levels, consider sponsoring Ribbonfarm as a micro-patron for 2011. But only if you can afford it. I’ll send every sponsor a signed copy of Tempo. You absolutely do NOT need to feel guilty about reading without paying. On other blogs, perhaps you should, but not on this one. Remember, free access is a necessary condition for a true Wild Thoughts blog to exist, not an act of benevolence on my part.
- The book is done, as far as the writing goes, and has weathered its first encounters with beta readers. Final production chores remain. Buy it when it comes out, and do some interesting ????? things with it. A rudimentary book site is up, check out the blurbs I’ve received so far, do the Like/Share/Save thing, and join the mailing list.
- Hire me, or recommend me for consulting gigs, especially for projects where I might find more Wild Thoughts to put on Ribbonfarm (remember, the business is about supporting the blog, not the other way around).
- Send me your ideas and thoughts for how I can complete the ????? part of the business model and get to “Profit.” I have my own ideas, but I am pretty sure there are better Wild Thoughts out there.
And finally, wish me luck.