Category Archives: Entrepreneurship

Bookshelf Review: the Rise of the Naked Economy

In the ongoing re-organization called Life, I came across this book and skimmed/read it to make keep/discard decisions.

It’s in the ‘Keep’ pile, but only just barely; and only for the function of identifying fallacies and wishful thinking.

I found the facile tone and smudged glossiness of the imagery very off-putting.

This book described happily the new work reality, in which many of us are super-specialists, providing very highly polished skills to a perpetually delighted market.

Others of us are to be generalists _ also very crucial, we’re told_ filling in gaps and doing – you know – general things.

All the infrastructure and ‘normal’ trappings of work are to be discarded – offices, established work relationships and protocols, permanence of any kind. Except for managers perhaps  – they can have trappings. But none for the rest!

It mentions at the end a few minor glitches – health insurance (and other benefits), collections problems, taxation policies that burden entrepreneurs vs. customers.

So ok, in reality – those minor things are kind of major, and many unstated problems exist which vastly outweigh the benefits.

For one thing, earning enough money to live on as a freelancer is very difficult to do in conjunction with maintaining the skill sets and knowledge base of a specialist. Apparently these new roles come with some sort of time-turning magical device!

Most utilization of freelancers takes place within a mature, structured workplace; because of all the ways in which that structure is necessary. The main body of activity in ‘getting things done’ will always need to happen within a permanent structure. Large groups of people engaging in innovation or existing service provision require permanent physical locations, computer and telephone technologies, long-standing interpersonal relationships.

There won’t ever be a ‘flash mob’ of people who are able to come together all as strangers for a short period to get a new design from research through the marketplace etc..

The flicking-off of a small percentage of positions from employment to contractor status weakens the people in those positions, as well as the organization itself: whether the specifics are adjunct faculty or accounting contractors. A great deal is lost when functional responsibility is lost in the shuffle.

I strongly feel that this push will turn out to have been profoundly wrong-headed; beneficial to small sets of people who managed the provision of freelance service and also to the people making the outsourcing decisions – at least until enough time passes to make clear the full impact of those decisions.

Meanwhile, from day one all the way through until a more complete relationship is re-established, the person providing the service is under-compensated. Financially, and on the wider basis as far as ongoing stability and life-planning foundation and career-wise and so on.

So many building blocks of a solid future exist only within the employment relationship. To actually replace those for freelancers – sincerely and in good faith – would take much more generous monetary compensation as well as a range of other substantive realities that have not at all been even explored, much less implemented. The reality is that these relationships have not been in good faith, but have been part of the hollowing out of the middle-class.

These authors – Ryan Coonerty and Jeremy Neuner – are themselves not distanced observers, but directly within the paradigm they’re discussing – they are both involved with NextSpace, an early pioneer in the coworking model.  Which brings up another aspect of this book – it weaves present and future, concrete realities and wishful generalizations, coal and diamonds to such an extent it’s difficult to digest.

But coworking itself is fascinating, and a great environment for certain types of functions. For folks in social media for instance, I can see how it would be perfect. It has its downsides (one example set), and will have growing pains as it matures (real estate prices for instance). But as it solidifies it also becomes one of the ‘infrastructure’ pieces that it itself is replacing, reminiscent of the conclusion of Vonnegut’s ‘Player Piano’.

This book also suggest using free resources whenever possible as a freelancer, to support the no-overhead model. Those free resources are reminiscent of procurement-chain management, in which smaller business were replaced with corporate/global supplies. Both paradigms deprive small, locally-held businesses of needed volume, causing constricted decision-making and diminished futures. More evidence of the wrong-headedness of this model

“Fun to Read!” says the book jacket. Not always ‘Fun’ to live!

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Escaping the Horrors of our current Economic Situation with Thomas Piketty

So I was watching a horror movie last night. It is called ‘The Apartment’ with Shirley MacLaine, Jack Lemmon, Fred MacMurry and many others, written directed and produced by Billy Wilder. It came out in 1960, at the end of the black-and-white era.

At the time, it was produced as a light comedy. Since then however, much has changed.

For example, Bud, Jack Lemmon’s character (whose apartment the film is about) is one of approximately 10,000 employees at an insurance company, making about $95 per week. His precious apartment (due to its location on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, close to Central Park) rents for about $110/month.

I didn’t watch it through, skipped around. But basically the higher-ups in his company take advantage of him, calling him names similar to drudge, and treat him poorly. He sits at a desk among a huge sea of desks on the 18th floor. They time when each floor can leave, so as to not overwhelm the elevators. The elevators are run by uniformed employees (including Shirley MacLaine’s character), the switchboard is still manually operated, etc..

So, let’s review.

This middle-aged man has a job of medium skill/intelligence, at a similar level as thousands of other employees, which is not yet much automated or supported via technology. He rents a wonderful apartment in a prime location, for just over 25% of his salary.

He is comfortable financially, isn’t conscious of that, and concerns himself with moving ahead. Presumably the other thousands of people he works with are also comfortable.

We know this – the 60’s were a time of widespread prosperity. It just hurts to see the characters so unaware of it. Kind of like in ‘Our Town’ how the people in the graveyard are aware of the people alive taking everything for granted.

My primary concern though is how we’re going to appear to people in 50 years. Will it seem to them that we have it amazingly well?  That is what would be horrifying.

And that scenario is not very far-fetched, according to the book everyone is reading that I finally picked up: ‘Capital in the 21st Century’ by Thomas Piketty (called by some “an Alexis de Tocqueville for the 21st century”.)

This article in the New Yorker describes Pinketty’s beliefs that the consequences of staying on our current course are ‘potentially terrifying.’  Piketty’s main point – growth of capital (in the hands of the rich) is higher than growth of the economy, resulting in permanent, ever-larger income disparities unless something is done.

So now I have my own copy of Piketty’s ‘Capital’, and I look forward to writing about it further in coming weeks and months. My initial reactions to the actual book itself: it’s big! Hardback of course only right now, and officially has 685 pages. Of course, the index starts at 671, the ‘contents in detail’ (?) list on page 657 (list of text headings), and general ‘Notes’ and references etc.. on page 579. So the actual ‘conclusion’ of the main text is on page 577.

I typed in a small section of text to one of those readability sites, it assigned a Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score of 49 (scale of 0 to 100, higher score indicating more readable).  I notice just skimming that he does often state what he is going say or what he has said, provides lots of navigational clues as he’s going, there are lots of visual data items as well.

I’m excited to finally have it in my hands – kept hearing Piketty this and Piketty that the last several weeks. Finally looked him up, and came to understand that this book has broken all sales records for a book on economics! It is actually number one on multiple bestseller lists. There are suggestions that this book could actually play a significant role in changing the course we’re on. I sincerely hope so!

 

 

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Strength & Vibrancy of Twin Cities

There was a display at the Cargill room in the Downtown Minneapolis Library a few years ago, celebrating the sesquicentennial (150 years) of Minnesota. It contained displays showcasing Minnesota’s inventions over the years. They included an extensive array: Medical (pacemakers, etc.. work by Bakken and many others), Computer, Food (wheat varieties created by Borlaug, credited with saving  the lives of millions; zillions of apples and much more at the University of Minnesota). Also random things like the Tilt-a-Whirl, Roller Blades, and Spam (which has, again, saved the lives of millions probably).

The University of Minnesota, one of the original Land-Grant institutions, has been doing everything possible to improve life for Minnesotans – and Everyone – since the 1850’s. I graduated with a degree in Accounting from there. I don’t know if you can tell. Anyway, even with the University’s various campuses and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system,  we have a wealth of smaller Universities and Colleges as well. Truly something for every interest and life path.

We have much more diversity here than others imagine. Minnesota schools  are helping kids learn English in addition to their own languages – 200 different languages are spoken in their homes. Our four main languages in Minneapolis are English, Spanish, Somali and Hmong. We are a vibrant community of cultures, ethnicities, neighborhoods  and communities.

We have a thriving arts community, more theater per person than almost anywhere else, storytelling, dance, live music and much more.

Politically, there’s just no end. But let me just stress our high voter turnout, and leave it at that. Except to also mention politics at its best – the Center for Victims of Torture, based in Minneapolis, doing everything possible to heal the human spirit.

That is one nonprofit of hundreds in Minnesota – part of a thriving nonprofit community that seeks to ensure the vitality and well-being of its citizens and address today’s challenges in coordination with government entities, foundations, benefactors and volunteers; in a way that is transparent and accountable.

We have a thriving technology arena with innovation and real-world application, new breakthroughs and efforts to bring technology’s benefits to as many as possible.

Our Minnesota State Fair is perhaps a good place to stop. For many on the coasts (the reason this post exists, see here and here), the State Fair justifies your belief systems about Minnesota. And, as I’ve said before, there’s a certain level of inevitability about all this which I accept.

Despite that, I’ll just say this: the State Fair is like life.

You have huge numbers of people, all of whom are doing what they want to do for their own reasons. Some have brought to the Fair the best of their years’ efforts – animals, artworks, recipes, large vegetables, seed art. Some have brought information and arguing points to try and change others minds and spark action. Some have brought items to sell, and/or money to buy. Many are artists and performers, there to incite joy, laughter and dancing. Many-many are present to take it all in and have a wonderful time.

There is a little bit of almost everything, and a zillion choices at every turn. You can – as in life – decide what experience you want to have, and then set about to have that experience. Things may go a different way, and you can adapt. There may be streets filled to the brim with unwashed masses – and alternate routes. Long lines at these times, shorter lines earlier/later. Coupons and deals to utilize. Extensive work and volunteer opportunites. Too much heat, rain, cold and blah days, disappointment, social goings-on with drama and heart break, families (in matching t-shirts sometimes) with best intentions, crying babies and their huge baby carriages always in the way, people moving about with assistive technology, people physically adjusting themselves to all those around them constantly, people who’ve been coming to the fair for decades, people who only recently landed in Minnesota and are still just their bearings, breaking technology and the newest in kitchen convenience. It’s all there, it’s all in the Twin Cities, it’s all the same in slightly different ways everywhere.

We are completely engaged in what we’re doing here. You are welcome to join us. It’s ok if you want to keep doing what you’re doing where you are. But we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing our own selves, in any case. Namaste.

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Rankings – Twin Cities

List of high rankings recently for Twin Cities

(Note, given our inherent modesty, it’s excruciating to pull this all together, but in moments like these the struggle is part of the reward).

Two of America’s Top 12 Cities – BusinessWeek

Bike City – # 1 (Bicycling Magazine)

Bike-Friendly City – #2 – CNN

Best City Park System  – Trust for Public Land

Top Best Cities for Young Adults: # 10 (Forbes Real Estate)

#1 City our size for National Night Out participation

Travel & Leisure: High rankings for multiple aspects including intelligence and summer

Dog Friendly Cities # 10 – Estately

Forbes #23 best place for business and career

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Reality

My Paradigm

I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. People on the US Coasts tend to not know where that is, and to not know much about it. I’m fine with that, in general. A current article in the NY Times about the Minneapolis bars/singles scene generated some commentary, and that sparked my thinking about perception vs. reality, in life and in work.

People almost never really see each other, and that is an essential attribute of life, and certainly of business.  And that’s all right.  Our whole selves are not really prime-time ready, not really palatable. We’ve seen comedies involving saying the exact thing one is thinking at every moment – doesn’t work very well. It’s OK to bring our best-constructed selves out to play, intentionally, for best outcomes.

And optimally, we recognize that what we see of others is a constructed picture. We translate and adjust accordingly.

In these current economic times, those translations and adjustments are even more necessary, and that’s what came to mind as I was thinking about New York’s perceptions of Minneapolis.  The economy is enormously challenging for many, many people. It’s hard to know the best way to respond to that at every moment. In this piece I’m exploring ways to do that involving perceptions and reality-constructions.

My take on constructed realities comes mainly from two early fascinations: theater and magic.

Reality Constructs: Theater & Magic

At my first audience experience at Park Square Theater in the 70’s, I was completely fascinated. The space was so small, the actors were Right There, but inhabiting an entirely different paradigm. It was a vivid introduction to the fourth wall (that between audience and staged situation).

I became somewhat involved back stage in High School on the East Coast (where I lived briefly), and then in college, I again became involved in theater, this time in a company called Punchinello Players (second oldest student-run community theater in the US at the time, no longer exists). We did ‘Waiting for Godot’ and other great things, and some that weren’t so great.

Throughout these formative experiences, it was endlessly fascinating to go from the earliest ideas and strategies for putting on a show, through the whole process, to audience reaction and financial outcomes. Particular aspects: knowing the shared script, following the script, improvising in response to the unexpected – were all very useful to my development as a person.

One night there was a bat – a live bat (the building was quite old)- in the green room during the whole show at Punch. Back stage we were very quiet, and moved around as little as possible, in the hopes that the bat would remain still for the duration. And it did! Just like in Noises Off, the drama behind the scenes rivaled that in front of the curtain. And the adage really is true: ‘The Show Must Go On.’

Prior to all that though, when I was 9 or 10, I became fascinated with simple magic tricks. The most important thing was to understand the concept of mis-direction: making a conscious choice of what you want the audience to pay attention to, and acting in such a way as to make that happen. The magic trick of course needed to happen elsewhere.

In both cases, perceived reality is not true. Perceived reality is constructed in a way as to be mutually beneficial to both parties, and it is acted out according to plan, and at the end, both parties are happy.

East Coast & West Coast and… Minneapolis

I’m not upset about how folks on the coasts perceive us here in Minneapolis – it isn’t the truth. There’s no way it could be, most of them have never been here or anywhere but where they live (or the other coast). Their constructions of us are beneficial to them, and they don’t really cost us anything at all. It’s pretty much a win win.

When High School was finishing, and I was letting folks know I’d be coming home to Minneapolis to attend the U, they would say, “But why?? You’re here now; you don’t have to go back there! You can stay Here!”

Some of the messages were:

But you’re OK! We like you! You can stay – you don’t have to go back and be with those lesser-folks!

 Now that you’ve seen what real life is like, how could you give it all up again and go back there?!  Don’t you want what we have, here?!?

 You must resist! Stay strong! Evolving takes effort. You’ve already made great progress. Just stay the course!

And other nonsense.  They simply had no idea! They weren’t that different from folks back home, things weren’t hugely better, certainly not more civilized or evolved in any way, and what the conversation really consisted of was group-defined presumptions and superiority constructs – paradigms that fit for them, but were not accurate for me at all.

Their lack of accurate perception could have cause negative outcomes for me if I’d based my actions on them, but I didn’t and everything worked out just fine.

Constructed Reality and the Workplace

Mass media/stereotypical views of our communities are similar to the marketplace for workplace professionals – an aspect of life, but not a defining factor. It’s simply becoming extremely necessary to see the fourth wall, to spot the misdirection.

Constructed narratives are a crucial linchpin in the business world. Employer and clients each present one, and it’s usually carefully crafted. In the past, employment was thought to be an instance of simply providing one’s work skills, and being paid. I believe now it’s much more about providing a skill-set related narrative, and fitting that in to each work situation. While knowing, just like in theater, that it’s a shared process; and also constantly updating it. Passivity is not your friend.

During these challenging times, some people find themselves in the position of being able to take advantage of their workplace power to reduce costs,  increase their comfort levels and so on. The other side of that coin is that others may receive less and/or have to work harder or under more difficult circumstances.  I feel that these aspects are temporary, for a variety of reasons. But even so, actively seeking that particular best workplace mix for you is always useful.

I saw a tweet recently – things won’t get easier until you get stronger.  I feel that the most true part of that is when we get stronger, it nearly always guarantees that things get a bit easier. And gaining strength – same as any other positive attribute – is always a useful goal. Even more so in times like these.

Workplace Challenges

Some perceptions of the work world today are that it will consist almost entirely of short-term ‘stints’, as in this article by William Ellermeyer describes.  I think there will always be more of a mixture, but the fact is employment no longer carries the long-term assurances it once did. Every person who wants to be working tomorrow, whether they are working today or not, as an employee or a contractor, needs to be learning about the marketplace in order to create their best script that most closely matches their skills and attributes to the optimal client/employer.

We have the choice to try and respond to changes in the marketplace in the way that is best for us and best for our customers and our community.  Part of that involves perceiving things accurately – looking for the misdirection, seeing the paradigm that is being presented and the reasons for it.

For instance, take Facebook. It is presenting the image of a portal for people to have social relationships with each other. It is also selling the presence of consumer-social-space to advertisers. Seeing the inherent misdirection is useful in choosing one’s level of interaction with Facebook.

Each workplace consists of individuals, who are unique, and groups that have a particular culture, and activities that are organized in a certain way. Now especially, people in power want to do things according to their own paradigm. They may choose to present an incomplete view of that to co-workers and employees. Over time, additional information and actions may contradict that presented view. It is crucial to take in non-official information and create your own understanding, and to not be surprised by the difference between your understanding of your workplace, and the official ‘story’ in place. Don’t block things out because they are confusing or contradictory. Take in the information, try and construct a way in which it all fits, and try and match your role on stage to the real situation you are discovering. But understand you also still need to fit the official script as well.

Take in more information; adjust your actions today and your plans for tomorrow. Often. Become nimble. Separate wants from needs.

These days require new skills that prior times didn’t as much. It’s important to be honest with ourselves about what we are willing to do, and what we’re not willing to do. About what is important to us in a workplace – ethical context, work being done, staff attributes, managerial culture, geography, marketplace perceptions, long term strategies. And then using that value information in making all these active choices.

Meeting the Challenge

We have to know ourselves well to constantly determine whether we are willing/able to be a match for this or that situation; when the optimal work relationship is in place and when it has ended; what meets our needs best for the next period; and so on, on a somewhat constant basis.

We all have specific quality markers that define our work. In my case, accounting, I define quality as:

Adhering to GAAP and complying with all federal, state and local laws and business best practices; while instituting and maintaining transaction systems that fit the particular organization and are effective; in order to produce timely accurate information that meets the requirements of external parties and the informational needs of internal decision-makers.

I am going to continue to do that, even when the marketplace changes the workplace relationships and structures.  Over the years through it all I continue to prioritize my most essential workplace actions, doing the rest as much as possible, and communicating about my work within the language of the marketplace today and my workplace relationships.

It requires constant re-thinking; comparing  current demands not to how things used to be done, but to what optimally can work now. There is constant prioritization, value definition and horizon scanning. This article by Christine M. Riordan in the Harvard Business Review is an example of the constant re-formulating I’m talking about.

Back to the theater: the marketplace forces are similar to that bat I mentioned, perched on the mirror backstage during the show: it’s a hurdle. It has to be incorporated in to our actions, but it doesn’t have to exert undue control over the quality of our work or our well-being.  We can still do our best and coordinate that process into the ever-changing workplace narrative.

The show goes on.

And Minneapolis continues to be its authentically wonderful, albeit imperfect, self – regardless of external simplistic perceptions of it.

Ed. Note:

There is a likelihood of future revisions of this piece. I tend to do that for a bit, it’s what works best for me. For those of you who’ve already read this, it won’t take anything away or change it substantively: just will increase the clarity for those coming after you.
The other thing is, I may add links – to external pieces, and to related pieces that I’m going to write in the future. If any of you reading this have opinions about notifying readers of that, I’d be interested.
I could add links added to this section for instance, or in a separate page, or not at all. So any thoughts on that are welcome.

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Online – Work vs. Personal

Last week I posted about one main difference for me, here is the rest of it.

Writing about my actual work gehts nicht. That phrase keeps being in my head. Literally: it doesn’t go. Meaning: it’s not going to happen. Hard to exactly put in in a phrase and have the sentence flow around it correctly, but that exactly captures the situation.

As I’m re-activating these various blogs and accounts and so on, thought I’d share a bit more about why that is.

My work life does not conform to the patterns I see in social media content.

For one thing, multiple aspects that folks normally write about are absent for me.

After taking away all that, what remains is the very core. Some of this content is analogous to other consulting, some is similar to IT process. Some is universal with any work process.

In those ways, I can see within my experiences that which others write about, even though they’re writing within a whole different work setting. And perhaps sometimes I’ll write things meant to be universal, distilled from multiple bits of various experiences I’ve had.

The whole rest of the time though, my online presence is about the goals of my work, which is to support entrepreneurs, creativity, adaptation, communities, and best possible futures.

And the occasional personal-self bit that might be adjacently related to work. Otherwise, my personal content is available nearby as well- but separate from this. Because it really works well for me to keep those two identities distinct, including online. For me they are different selves, with different goals, different challenges, different support systems, different rewards, different cycles, different everything.

And that’s actually the main difference that prompted both these posts – my interest in keeping two of everything – two Google + pages, two twitter accounts: in order to maintain that distinction. It fascinates me that so many merge the two.

The other part for me is about the fourth wall, like of the theater. More on that in another post… Much of work is theater (heck, much of life is), and in my personal online presence, I take away that fourth wall.

So, was thinking that since I’m the exception, thought I’d go ahead and clarify that so people can interact accordingly. I’m looking forward to sorting myself into the kaleidescope of social media more effectively going forward. See you there!

Thanks for visiting, comments always welcome.

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Film Note: The Company Men

Speaking of the Recession (as I have been in these last few posts, among other things) I just saw The Company Men and feel compelled to write about it.

I wonder sometimes how this recessionary period will look, historically, once more time has passed. Will it be seen as a period of massive change, best and worst of times but a necessary portal into the future – like the beginnings of the Industrial Age? Or will it be seen as a temporarily bad period, like the US Depression, that caused pain and damage, all of which was more than offset by events of the following decade(s)? Or like the early years of AIDS – in which much lasting damage was done because of the ideologies in place at the time? Or (worst case) a period that seemed bad at the time, but was actually mild in comparison to what came after. Like the Weimar Republic in Germany – creating conditions necessary for unspeakable horrors?

In any case, whether constructive change process that bore some cost, or inherently destructive period which could have been avoided/minimized, or something else entirely, the personal impacts felt momentous at the time, and this film does a great job of capturing them.

All the acting is excellent: Ben Affleck (just loved him in Argo recently also), Rosemarie DeWitt (whose work I didn’t know, but who is really great in this), Chris Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Costner and others.

And I felt like it captured well the changes so many had to go through, the change in the US that happened to many in the middle class/upper middle class. And which didn’t effect (negatively, anyway) the main CEO guy. Ways in which folks helped each other. The kids, responding to the best of their ability. I agree it does hit men harder, because they have their identities more inextricably linked with their work, among other things.

I liked that it didn’t feel as overwrought as Margin Call, another film related to these events. That one had an uneven tone that was distracting, a lack of emotional focus, and an idealogy of some kind overlaid towards the end (just was ready for it to be done by then). Instead, The Company Men is more simply about the emotional impacts and the choices confronting people.

I’m glad it had the ending it did. Those last few scenes – thought I heard Ben’s (I think real-life) Southie (South Boston) speech back in place, also fun.. was his parent’s home around there or something possibly? Or maybe just was something they didn’t sound-edit out. (I’m an expert in all that, having seen Postcards from the Edge, you know). Or maybe I imagined it.

Anyway, good entry into times-of-our-lives film category, IMHO. Hopefully times are getting/will get better, and the pain of this period will become temporary – in which case films like this can be informative as well as entertaining.

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