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Monday, April 23, 2007

America the Bootstrap

I was recently in DC over my birthday weekend, which also happened to coincide with the second anniversary of my becoming a US citizen. Walking around the Capitol I was reminded of how the US itself is a Bootstrap.

A couple of aspects are particularly striking in this analogy. First, "version 1.0" (or was it the demo?!) under the Articles of Confederation, was a disaster, giving states too much power and leaving a weak central government. This became evident as the "United States" were not quite so united and instead found themselves on the brink of economic disaster just ten years into the grand experiment. It took version 2.0 - the Constitution - to get it right. And even that first version was unsatisfactory, with the Bill of Rights quickly introduced as the first amendment. The founding fathers, contrary to our general mythologizing of them, did not know if their first attempt would work. The US, like great products, did not come out of the womb perfectly formed. However, it was the lessons learned from the first version that showed what didn't work. This is akin to the bootstrap entrepreneur starting with the demo and then based on feedback from the customer, improving it till it works. We can therefore call the founding fathers excellent bootstrappers! Furthermore, it is precisely the fact that they built in the process for how the document could be amended that also makes the Constitution like a Bootstrap product - always subject to change as new input comes in.

Second, it is interesting how the Evangelists of "America the Bootstrap," take center stage while the Mavens stay in the background. Walking around the various monuments, we see the towering figure of Jefferson in his grand rotunda. In sharp contrast, George Mason's Memorial sits off to the side and is much smaller. It was Mason's Virginia Bill of Rights which served as a blueprint for the US one. Similarly, James Madison is another unsung Maven, with no monument of his own. He not only saw the failure of the Articles, but almost single-handedly organized the Constitutional Convention, convincing Washington to preside. It's good there's aBlogger: Bootstrap Austin Blog - Create Postll that space around the Mall to correct that in the future!

If we ever forget that the US is an ongoing bootstrap venture, we have only to examine the Star Spangled Banner, the nation's anthem. It ends not in a declarative statement as seems when sung, but in a question:

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

And the moment any venture stops living in the question, it's goodbye time.

Hinduism as Peer Production

We have many discussions within Bootstrap about Peer Production and Open Source. In fact, our upcoming Web subgroup meeting is focused on just this topic.

The wiki definition of commons-based peer production says that it is "new." On a recent trip to DC and a visit to the Freer Gallery, I was struck by the realization that Hinduism (unlike most other religions), adopted a peer production/open source approach, thus making it one of oldest examples of the concept.

How does it work this way? Under Hinduism, only a few basic core concepts are articulated, particularly around the form and nature of God (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva as Creator/Preserver/Destroyer), with some core texts such as the Upanishad and Bhagavad Gita. Beyond this, however, adherents are allowed to create and worship any particular manifestations of God that they like. One therefore finds hundreds of gods that are worshipped and venerated all across India, various mythological stories and a wide variety of practices and traditions. Particular temples are dedicated to a specific god and, in effect, adopt a similar structure to many open source organizations that monetize their work by charging for entrance fees, special offerings, etc. Anyone can become a "guru" espousing their particular method or approach simply by declaring themselves as such. The marketplace of adherents determines their validity. Even with regard to the texts, there is no notion that these are "official" in any capacity. Adherents are free to subscribe to any set of mythologies, gods, traditions, gurus, etc, that they deem fit. A Hindu is one simply by virtue of self declaration.

There are also analogies to the the Starfish/Spider concept in that there is no central authority in Hinduism and everyone is free to create and worship whatever aspect they choose. This also in part, explains why Buddhism, though "invented" in India, never took root there. Hindus simply acknowledged it as an aspect of the larger "open source Hindu" concept.

Interestingly, in its early days, Christianity also operated under similar guidelines, with a plethora of gospels all with unique interpretations of Jesus' teachings. It was only 300 years later that it moved away from a peer-production model when Constantine formalized and adopted Christianity as the state religion of Rome. In contrast with Hinduism, subsequent contentions about core ideology resulted violent suppression and subsequent splits from the central church.

What allowed Hinduism to resist the urge towards centralizion and control? Perhaps one reason was the lack of a founder, which alleviates issues of succession that other movements had; and more importantly, no conflicts over what the founder said and meant by his words. Furthermore, there is an intrinsic allowance and encouragement of individual interpretations (to fork the code, as it were). Hindu scholars will no doubt, be able to enlighten us on these topics.

All of these discussions are relevant to all peer production and open source movements including the Bootstrap Network.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Bootstrap Art meeting - April 2

We had a great meeting on Monday. Mostly, we talked about what the Bootstrap Network is, and how it's all about connecting with others who can help you with your business, and helping other people in turn. We pointed out that the Yahoo group is the main means of communication, and how 800 Bootstrap members and Business Week magazine have found that it works extremely well.

We also talked about the Boot Boards which are about to be re-introduced. Boot Boards are groups of 5 - 7 Bootstrap members who meet monthly as a "Board of Directors" for each other. There was a great deal of interest in that initiative. I'll post more about that tomorrow.

By the end of the meeting, everyone knew that they didn't need to be alone in their efforts, and that they would all benefit by working together. There was so much excitement and energy at the end, that I experienced the following:

* One accomplished independent water color artist I know gave everyone in sight a big hug and told them that he was glad to see this community being brought together. He told everyone how he could help them and offered to help in any way he can.

* A newly independent painter who recently terminated her contract with a leading local gallery to follow her own path was thrilled to find that she wouldn't have to make her journey alone. I introduced her to Roi, since he made the same move several years ago, and he's going to help her get started and give her the encouragement she needs.

* A well-regarded painter who has been exhibited in London and Miami and had seemed to be convinced that he could make his way on his own was overwhelmed by the synergy and excitement of the group, and he TOTALLY wants to help and be a part of this.

* A gifted abstract painter who moved to Austin 8 months ago and didn't really know anyone was thrilled to meet everyone in the group and be a part of such a great bunch of people in the art community. Her husband, who is not an artist, told me that they had been looking for something like this ever since they moved to Austin. He's also excited and eager to help in any way he can.

Mind you, this was no Tony Robbins meeting. This was all business. And it got everyone really excited!

Ariel Zarate spoke briefly about the Artspark Festival promoting collaboration between visual artists, video game designers, and local theater. There will be cash prizes in excess of $10,000. Entry deadline is April 16. I can send you a link if you're interested. We will be talking more about collaboration with local theater and other art forms very soon.

I handed out some simple forms asking for everyone's name, e-mail address, what they would like some help with, and how they can help others. I will be connecting everyone who attended according to their interests and abilities. We had 15 new people say they wanted to join the group!

I hope you can make it to the next meeting.

Labels:


Swarming the Planet

David Whitworth says that it's a small planet--at least the local apartment scene is. David is founder and CEO of Small Planet Guide, a site that helps out-of-towners find apartments in the greater Austin area. The site answers David's root question: "How can I help someone moving to Austin to learn more about it?"

The minds of this month's Bootstrap Marketing Swarm asked the question "How can I help Small Planet Guide make more money and grow?"

Small Planet's differentiator is information: articles, neighborhood profiles and information on schools, entertainment and more. Most apartment search sites, such as apartments.com, rent.com, moveforfree.com, apartmentlocator.com and apartmentguide.com (to name a few) simply allow you to search based on the price range, area, and floor plan. Small Planet gives you a taste of the neighborhoods in the area. Where are the hip and young parts of town? Where would a retired person look?

The nice thing about this is that search engines also love all of the content on David's site. They like it so much so, that he's outranking his larger national competitors across the board. The search engines are driving some 26,000 unique visitors to his site each month where they can view detailed specs on some 115 complexes and can lookup a total of 600 properties.

His unique selling proposition is "Focused, Flexible, and Affordable." This means that he provides lots of local detail, offers several kinds of plans to listing apartments, and undercuts his competition. This is one area that our swarmers focused on later in the discussion.

According to David there are some 800 apartment complexes in Austin and his assumption is that they MUST be eager to find new renters.

As it turns out, apartment managers aren't eager to do anything with someone they don't know. David has tried emailing, calling, and visiting. Even free listings on his site have been turned down. "They didn't know who I was."

So far, only a small percentage of his listing properties are paid.

Business Model

Small Planet makes money on two ends of the pipeline. Apartments can choose to pay a flat monthly fee for a listing on his site OR they can pay for signed renters delivered by Small Planet.

David's challenges are at both ends: getting apartment managers to understand his offering of qualified traffic as well as getting potential renters to mention Small Planet when they sign.

He's implementing some new features that will help, including an email feature that allows renters to contact apartments through a Small Planet branded email.

His other challenge is that he is beholden to the apartment complexes to provide their detailed information, including floor plans and prices.

A look at the site

A look at David's site revealed a great content source. Articles are written by a professional travel author. He does a lot of cross-linking within the site. Someone can move easily between the apartment listing and articles on the neighborhood and back. It's clear that a great deal of work was put into this.

Tell them where they are

The swarmers thought that it was aggressive to make the home page one big search form. However, they felt that the lack of descriptive text would leave many visitors unsure of why thy would fill out the form. It was recommended that there be some brief descriptive text just before the search form.

Maximize Key "Real Estate"

The group pointed out that eye-tracking studies show that the key areas of the page, or key "real estate" are the upper left and upper right. Then the eye should follow a Z pattern down the main content. Content "above the fold" or in the top 600 pixels of the screen is most likely to be seen.

The swarmers felt he could remove unnecessary words in the upper left such as "Menu." Most of us know what a menu is. It was also recommended that color and bold text be used in this area to communicate the purpose of the site. Instead of simply "Search" it was recommended that stronger calls to action be used like "Find your Apartment."

It was also suggested that there was too much unused space in the header portion of the page. This caused the content to be pushed below the "fold" where it was unlikely to be seen.

Email is the New Sales Call

The swarmer reiterated that Small Planet could be using email in a more strategic way. Keeping the brand in front of apartment managers was key to building trust. "They're classic Relaters" was a clear conclusion from Bijoy. "Look for every opportunity to email them." David's strategy of emailing them every time a visitor inquired was definitely seen as a step in the right direction.

Big Strategies

Our swarmers aren't afraid of going for the big idea. The group noted that David's value proposition was "we're better than the other guys." Better is a vitamin, and he needed to find a pain pill in order to get reluctant managers interested. Some strategies discussed included:

  1. Be the premier of Quality tenants. Informed tenants are happier tenants who rent for longer terms. No site informs better than Small Planet.
  2. Be the most expensive. This implies all kinds of things to buyers and can provide more cash flow to this bootstrapped firm in the early days.
  3. Get users to comment on properties. Dave had looked at this and the apartment managers aren't ready for this kind of transparency. In fact one apartment was suing one of his competitors over this very thing.

Conclusion

David was a great host and took our critiques with an open mind. I think he'll be doing very well in a few months.

--Brian Massey

Want a crash course in online marketing? Join us on the first Wednesday of each month for a Marketing Swarm where great minds dissect the online strategies of one entrepreneur.

March Swarm: OakTreeIdea.com


Friday, April 06, 2007

Sustainability Group - March 29, 2007 Meeting Notes

Sustainability Subgroup Meeting Notes (3-29-07)

WHO:

Approximately 10 people met at Austin Java (Barton Springs).

WHAT:

We discussed each person’s basic interests and why they were attending the group. A few attendees have companies that work at least partially in sustainable businesses or services (e.g. cabinetry, financing, low-impact housing, and energy efficient practices).

The purpose of the group was discussed. People wanted the group to serve three general functions:

  • Soundboard and a community for discussion of ideas related to sustainability
  • Resource for businesses within the group to test ideas and gain experience in their field
    • E.g. Allowing an energy efficiency business to volunteer within an event/business/building to gain knowledge, experience, and a portfolio to expand services
  • General networking

We watched “The Power of Community” (http://www.communitysolution.org/cuba.html) – See next page for my attempted synopsis of the movie.

WHAT’S NEXT:

  • Begin discussion on the e-mail user group about business/project ideas that one or more members of the group can work on.
    • We hope to pick 1-3 ideas to discuss in more detail in the next meeting
  • Begin a way to measure and reward businesses and/or Austin community members for sustainable practices.
    • If people are enacting sustainable practices, we need to be able to measure what is more sustainable
      • Less energy (or non-renewable energy) usage
      • Less land usage
      • Renewable/recycled/recyclable raw materials
      • Etc.
    • Recognition in the community, based upon measurements, of sustainable practices
      • Perhaps gains business and spread of best practices
  • Pick a time for the next meeting
    • Should have a regular monthly meeting time?
    • Should we have a morning/breakfast meeting in addition to an evening meeting?


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