Another year, another set of lessons big and small, pleasant and harsh. It’s time for the third annual call for sponsorships and backstage-peek day. If you read the 2012 and 2011 posts, you know the drill. First, we’ll talk money, then we’ll go backstage to talk philosophy, do a little retrospective and look out at the year ahead. Things are now getting complicated enough that I need a little table of contents. If this goes on, next year I might need video. Here’s the agenda. Skip what doesn’t interest you.
- Grow Branches and Roots
- The Bristlecone Pine Business Model
- Refactor Camp 2013
- Refactorings Meetups and Online Groups
- Ribbonfarm Consulting Exits Stealth Mode
- The Gig Economy and Ribbonfarm
- Be Slightly Evil and Gervais Principle series finales
- Buy Me a Coffee retired, Crowdfunded Features in the works
- Resident Blogger Tryouts
- Now Reading
Money first. In 2012, 29 sponsors together contributed $3750 to support this site, a 66% increase over 2011 ($2250 from 25 sponsors). For 2013, four early birds have already contributed $300. If you were considering sponsoring this year, consider this your cue and go ahead. The money is starting to make a serious difference.
Now for the philosophy. Every year, I add a single line to my evolving business philosophy. In 2011, my first problogger year, the line was go where the wild thoughts are. In 2012, it was go deep, young man.
For 2013, the line is grow branches and roots. What do I mean by that?
Grow Branches and Roots
A few months back, I read Michael Gerber’s classic guide to growing small businesses, E-Myth Revisited. The central idea in the book is that when you work for yourself, you have to make sure you spend as much time working on the business as you do working in the business.
Gerber argues that to work “on” a business is to build a business machine. Assembling, testing and automating that machine as much as possible is the invisible backstage work that Gerber calls “working on the business.”
I like the Gerber model, but I find myself instinctively porting the ideas from the machine metaphor to more organic ones. Certain fundamental premises change when you do that.
When you assemble a business machine, your goal should be to automate as much as possible. Where you cannot eliminate the human element, you need to squeeze out variability and make the human pieces as predictable, interchangeable, and low-cost as possible. You need to think in terms of markets that exist for finite periods of time and ways to maximize the total wealth you extract from your market, while it exists. The ideal machine-business is an optimized wealth extractor with a finite design lifetime.
But if you are starting with an organic metaphor, human variability is the source of much of the value, so it is something you want to maximize, within certain fluid boundaries, not minimize. The comments section of a healthy blog is an example.You want variability there, not interchangeability. If Kay and Goblin, two of the more active commenters last year, said the same things, life would be dull for me. This is not an isolated example. Blogging is a game that fundamentally feeds off human variability.
Everything I do seems to work this way, based on 1:1 relationships and meetings. Ribbonfarm is slowly turning into a hand-crafted network that grows really slowly, one hand-poured coffee meeting at a time (yes, my new proximity to Portland is having its effects). I just discovered Wolfram Alpha’s Facebook Analytics tool (via a Portland-based, self-described “75% hipster” in the Ribbonfarm network as it happens). Here’s what Ribbonfarm looks like on my Facebook profile. The subgraph is bigger than my professional, academic and friends-and-family subgraphs combined. It has grown slowly over five years of meetups, events and and email introductions.
Actually, many modern business models seem to “grow” this way, fueled by human variability, rather than being “assembled” through economies-of-scale thinking. Which is why I am searching for a theory of economies of variety. It has become my holy grail both as a small-business grower and somebody interested in management theories.
So how do you envision growth and longevity for a business model fueled by human variability via an organic metaphor?
I like to think of growing a tree. This process has two pieces: growing roots and growing branches. There is also a specific tree you should seek to emulate, the bristlecone pine.
The Bristlecone Pine Business Model
It is funny that my philosophy lines from 2011 and 2012 foreshadowed this arboreal direction of business model evolution. I didn’t plan it that way. My 2011 line was about finding and preserving a core of wildness in the sense of John Muir’s thoughts on wild forests. The idea seeped through into the map I made up in 2012, where I situated ribbonfarm in the middle of a “Barbarian Forest.”
In 2012, my instincts turned towards “going deep” in the sense of growing roots. For me, this meant finding a way to reconcile my wariness of community building with the need to develop and catalyze deeper relationships with the potential to weather technological and economic turbulence (“i.e. what happens to me if WordPress, RSS and Google Reader disappear?”).
In 2013, my gut tells me that the key for businesses that seek the holy grail of economies of variety is to optimize for longevity rather than near-term profitability. It turns out that a key to building a business that feeds on human variability is in fact to pretend that you’re building a business designed to endure for eternity (there’s an iterated prisoner’s dilemma in there somewhere). It’s the right strategy even if you’re only interested in your own lifetime, so long as there is uncertainty in how long you will stay alive.
So you should pretend your business is a bristlecone pine, the longest-lived organism on the planet.
The key to that, I’ve concluded is Tim O’Reilly’s dictum, create more value than you capture. I am not exactly known for altruism, so as you can probably guess, if you think it through, this is in fact a selfish-optimal strategy in certain situations, like mine.
Within the “tree” metaphor, it turns out that “roots” are a good way to represent the value you create, and “branches” are a good way to represent the value you capture. I even found a Facebook meme via another member of the Ribbonfarm network, that captures the idea of “create more value than you capture” via an arboreal allegory.
Yeah, I am growing schmalzy in my old age (okay, I am just 38, but hanging around the no-country-for-old-men startup types makes you feel prematurely senile).
An economies-of-variety longevity focused business model is therefore a bristlecone pine with a root system that is more extensive than its branch system. Such a system has, I suspect, a higher chance of achieving longevity under conditions of environmental variability. It’s what Taleb would call an antifragile business model.
How do you build such a business?
Bristlecone pines act like bristlecone pines from Day 1, even if they don’t make it past fruit-fly old age. You can’t start off the blocks like a fruit fly and then suddenly decide you want “sustainability” instead.
So translated to business-speak, you grow as though you have all of eternity to grow, even if you rationally estimate your odds of survival past Year 5 at less than 10% (I am now in Year 3 as an incorporated business, and am not deluded enough to think that the odds of 90% failure by Year 5 don’t apply to me).
The bristlecone pine is my motif for the idea of slow marketing and immortal businesses, until I figure out an actual theory of “economies of variety” to describe what I am trying to do.
That’s why I’ve been toying with and discussing my “slow marketing” model with Friends of Ribbonfarm for a few years now. It’s why I resist the temptation to try easy hacks that could, at least for a while, quadruple the growth rate in the vanity metric websites love to optimize for: unique visitors (a very ironic term, since the “unique” actually refers to counting interchangeable visitors correctly).
In the last year, both unique visitors and visits grew approximately 15% over the previous year (comparing Q1 2012 to Q1 2013). Bounce rate, the metric I pay the most attention to (though mostly I don’t look at metrics at all), dropped from around 6.30% to 4.97%. RSS subscriptions grew from around 4500 this time last year to around 5800, a 28% increase.
That’s what slow marketing looks like. Slow and unbouncy. Here’s a glimpse for you data geeks.
Refactor Camp 2013 was held again at the San Francisco Zoo, same as the inaugural edition in 2012. This time, the theme was urban futures. I am still working on a post based on what I learned (most likely the influence of the event will creep into multiple blog posts; I don’t really feel like doing an explicit roundup).
We considered starting a Fall Refactor Camp on the East Coast, but after some thought, gave up on the idea. One event is all I think I can manage to organize (and subsidize via sponsorships) in a year. But next year, we’ll try to make it more of a national event, both thematically and in terms of making the logistics friendlier to out-of-town attendees (we had a few out-of-towners both in 2012 and 2013, but we haven’t made any effort so far to encourage or plan for that).
The slow marketing philosophy is in effect here as well. We decided not to grow attendance capacity, but did increase the length of the event to two days.
Now that the event has survived two iterations, I feel enough confidence in its potential for longer-term survival that I’ve created a permanent website for it at refactorcamp.org.
Refactorings Meetups and Online Groups
If you’ve been following along in this attempt to grow a bristlecone pine, you know that I’ve been conflicted about the idea of growing a “community” around ribbonfarm. I basically don’t like the idea.
To keep creativity alive, you have to inhabit edges. To grow communities, you have to occupy centers. I’ve written about this fundamental conflict before.
Refactor Camp has turned into the natural solution, since it’s off to the side of Ribbonfarm proper, in my peripheral vision. When we started the first Refactorings Facebook group in 2012, I didn’t really give much thought to the experiment. A few people suggested it and I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try. Now, more than a year later, it is still (much to my surprise) going strong. Formal meetups have gotten a bit irregular in the Bay Area, but the group has grown enough, and is active enough online, that serendipitous offline meetings are working out.
A few months ago, we seeded another group for New York, founded by a couple of 2012 Refactor Camp attendees who migrated there. The group is holding its second meetup next Thursday, May 2, at 6:15 PM, at the Grand Central Oyster Bar. Let me know if you want to attend and I’ll connect you to Jay Hinton, who’s pulling it together.
Benign neglect seems to be the way to implement slow marketing here, so the Refactor Camp website now has a meetups page where you can sign up if you’re interested in starting a local group in your city. We’re also starting to experiment with Google Hangouts. The first couple have been fun.
If there is critical mass (a judgment call, not a fixed number), and especially if there is a Refactor Camp alum in your area, I’ll make the necessary introductions and we can try to get the group off the ground, and I’ll try to find excuses (on-site consulting and speaking gigs basically) to get myself to your city.
And speaking of consulting and speaking…
Ribbonfarm Consulting Exits Stealth Mode
I am always pleasantly surprised by how much people seem to want to help me make this work, just based on enjoying a blog post or two. Goodwill is surprisingly cheap. I am also surprised by the number of people who think that I live off writing. One reader recently told me he thought I was “living the dream.”
As some of you are aware, I make most of my income — to the tune of 70-90%, though it varies a lot quarter to quarter — from consulting, not publishing this site or earnings from Tempo. I am not one of your impressive probloggers pulling in six figures directly from online activities.
Sponsorships and the book together pay for the direct costs of the online and offline activities, with some lunch money left over, but don’t yet amount to rent money.
But after two years, I am finally starting to find my feet as a consultant. I still haven’t recovered my pre-free-agency income levels (which is sort of the minimum benchmark I want to hit by Year 5 in order to justify keeping at it), but I am slowly getting there.
I’ve finally logged enough of a track record of completed gigs and talking-headery that a proper website seemed worth it. Like it, bookmark it, etc. There’s a slide-show on the home page that you can check out if you want to know what we actually do, and why “we” is the right pronoun. Check it out, share it, etc.
The Gig Economy and Ribbonfarm
I said when I struck out on my own that the blog isn’t about content marketing for the business: the business is about making the blog possible. That was not just a choice but a fact. I’d guess there’s maybe a few dozen readers with VP or higher roles in sufficiently large companies here, who could actually send a gig my way without a thought. Senior executives with the power to spend money, in my experience, rarely read long-form articles that attempt esoteric refactorings of thoroughly useless subjects. My leads have mostly come from my writing on other sites.
Most readers of this blog are themselves struggling Rent-and-Ramen entrepreneurs, designers and early career professionals far from VP-level purse-string access (the majority of Refactor Camp attendees, as well as people I meet up with for coffee or lunch, tend to be younger than me). This is why I’ve largely viewed marketing the consulting business as a separate problem from keeping this site going.
So unless there’s something you guys are not telling me, my assumption about most of you is that you’re not in a position to even sponsor the site, let alone hire me (though if you are, you’re welcome to).
But somehow, through the relationship flow from interesting comments discussions, to email, to participation in the online groups, to meetups and Refactor Camp, to occasional collaboration on consulting gigs or passion projects, this site creates value in a very different way: by helping participants do just a little better in the gig economy.
So what does that make you, the reader? You’ve heard that line about social media, if you’re not paying, you’re the product, right? That’s what you are. The product.
Except that I don’t sell your attention to advertisers, I draw on your skills and knowledge to inform my writing here, and derive the second-hand intelligence that informs my consulting business. Refactor Camp and meetups have turned into the conduit for that flow of intelligence. My own modest attempt at resisting the growing locust economy by catalyzing production instead of consumption. I am not a complete cynic.
I am not making this up or pandering to your vanities. Advertising hasn’t really worked well enough to be worth the trouble on this site, which is why I don’t run ads anymore. But for just about every consulting project I’ve done in the last year, I’ve called on somebody I met through random meetups or Refactor Camp for free advice or expertise.
I’ve even been able to hire a few readers to help me out with bits and pieces of my consulting gigs.
I am not about to solve Obama’s underemployment problem single-handed, but Ribbonfarm is starting to turn into a modest little source of talent in the American gig economy (maybe one day it will extend to Canada and beyond). I’d like to grow that potential.
But I am not going to set up a job board or gig-exchange site. There’s enough of those around.
Instead, what I’d like to do is very slowly grow a curated recommendation network based on people actually meeting face-to-face and collaborating where possible. No commissions, no fees, no klout. Just actual trust, coffee and email.
That’s the idea behind this little directory on the consulting site. The list is short, and is going to grow bristlecone-pine slow.
Be Slightly Evil and Gervais Principle Finales
As you already know if you’re on the BSE mailing list, I plan to end the newsletter with a final issue soon. Since the Office is also approaching its series finale on May 16, I plan to wrap up the Gervais Principle series as well. I’ll post the finale in the next few weeks, promise. For real this time. Even if it means flushing out a hasty and unpolished draft full of holes.
With help from Jane Huang, reader-turned-editorial-moonlighter here, I am working on combining the BSE newsletter archives and the Gervais Principle series into a big fat ebook. I’ll hopefully get it done by mid-May.
It’s been an interesting journey. The Gervais Principle series has wound its way across five parts through four years so far. The Be Slightly Evil newsletter, which I started in 2010 after the success of the first couple of GP posts, now has over 2200 readers. I’ve written over 50 issues of the newsletter.
It seems a shame to retire a successful and growing email list, but I’ve concluded that email lists are not a medium for me.
I also need to free up bandwidth to play with a new medium: slide-decks and business thought-pieces to market the consulting business. Watch the downloads page on the consulting site for developments on that front. I’ll add some sort of subscription mechanism once I add actual content there.
But the Slightly Evil philosophy will live on bey0nd GP and the BSE newsletter, as the Slightly Evil Practice within Ribbonfarm Consulting.
There’s even a page for it, accessible via an Easter egg, if you can find it.
Buy Me a Coffee Retired, Crowdfunded Features in the Works
Another ending, another beginning. After years of faithful service, I am retiring the Buy Me a Beer plugin. While the income — a few hundred dollars a year — was useful validation and feedback in the early years of Ribbonfarm, now that the business has grown to the point where I have had to retain a book-keeper, the money is not worth the headache of keeping track of it.
I also need to develop more serious revenue streams, particularly those that allow me to better balance consulting and writing.
One of the hidden tensions in running a business that’s a mix of media and consulting is the constant threat of conflicts of interest. I’ve had to turn down many gigs because it was clear that what people really wanted was to pay for PR in the guise of consulting.
But I’ve also had to turn away people who wanted to pay me to write about topics that interested them, with no strings attached or editorial interference. These are typically feature writing suggestions that would take as much work as say an analysis project for a consulting client.
The requests range from analyzing specific business ideas or sectors to analyzing TV shows. I get constant requests to pull a Gervais Principle on Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire, Game of Thrones, House of Cards and Deadwood (insert your favorite Sociopath show/movie here).
I’d love to oblige, but while I am quite the extreme couch potato, even I can’t spend that much time watching and analyzing TV shows without more to show for it.
So starting this year, I am going to be using platforms like Kickstarter to fund more ambitious writing projects that require more research (or TV watching), with results that will show up here or on other sites. I thought of doing a Kickstarter for Game of Pickaxes, but I figured I ought to shoot for an indefinite series of small projects rather than one big one. Bristlecone pine again.
I am still working out the details, since figuring out a model that would be acceptable to editors of media outlets that might run the features, while satisfying the crowd-sponsors who fund individual features, is a bit tricky.
I’ll be posting the first such crowd-funded feature project in the next few weeks. Just another way you can support Ribbonfarm if you choose.
Resident Blogger Tryouts
Earlier this month, I received a milestone compliment via email. Reader Josh McHugh wrote (emphasis mine):
“Love what you guys are writing at Ribbonfarm. Really impressive and thought-provoking.”
People tend to be generous and encouraging with praise on email (trolls rarely escalate beyond the comments section), so I usually don’t take the actual content of such emails seriously, but the use of the plural was extremely satisfying.
After years of (slow, again) experimentation, I think I’ve finally found a sustainable model for evolving this into a group blog loosely built around the “experiments in refactored perception” mission-tagline. The resident blogger model is working out.
Mike, Kevin, Greg and Drew have each helped broaden the conversation here (and over at the Tempo site) in unique ways.
It isn’t easy to find contributors who fit into a young bristlecone pine in the right way, but I think I know what to look for now.
My mental model of the residency idea is very simple: an opportunity for serious long-form writers to explore a more ambitious theme over 4-6 posts, without any pressure to “perform” in the sense of hitting particular vanity metrics. As the “experiments” in the tagline suggests, I view this blog as an R&D laboratory for both my money-making work and my life. It’s nice to have company in the lab.
I can’t pay much, just a small $100 honorarium per post (that’s one way I use sponsorship money), but if the idea interests you, get in touch for a trial post. If the experiment produces interesting results, and you are interested in doing something bigger, we can talk about a residency.
At some point, I may try to offer a little online course to teach the sort of gonzo-longform refactoring that goes on around here. Look for that later this year.
Finally, to wrap up, I’ve finally gotten around to adding the most frequently requested feature for this site: a book recommendations page. Over the years, I’ve mostly stopped doing book reviews, but books are still a major part of what goes on here, and a huge part of conversations at meetups and Refactor Camp.
I’ll evolve this page as and when I can think of ways to improve it. It’s not yet automated, so don’t expect prompt updates.
So with that, I’ll sign off here. I am sure I’ve forgotten a couple of important things, but this backstage tour has gone on long enough.
Here’s to one more year in this bristlecone-pine growing experiment. Consider sponsoring if you are able, and thank you for reading and keeping this site going.