Union Square Ventures and a new kind of Venture Capital firm.

Yesterday’s, NYTimes article on Union Square Ventures (USV) entitled “A New Kind Of Venture Capital Firm” is an interesting read and I’m glad to see the media beginning to pick up on this.

I’ve been following USV for a whlie now and actually interviewed Brad Burnham in preparation for a session at the Open Everything Retreat on Investing in Open. They seem to have a knack for investing in webtech ventures like Twitter and Wesabe that have models that can be deeply disruptive to the systems they are taking on and where the question of how they are going to make money from them is far from answered. And now they’re turning more of their attention to conventionally ‘social’ issues including education and the environment.

Coming off my latest exploration of the social venture capital sector, I’m looking forward to seeing USV coming into this space – and I don’t think it’s much of a stretch. Investments like Twitter and Wesabe are not too dissimilar from making investments in social change and innovation. Both are venturing toward systems level change – and come with a high degree of complex ambiguity.

At the same time, we are beginning to see a new mode of organization taking shape that challenges how ventures are built and therefore how we invest in them. Where all of these things come together is where I’m betting we are going to find some deep innovations on the new kind of venture capital firm I think USV and others are all working their way towards.

In the meatime, if you’ve encountered – or are thinking of – any innovations in this area please pop them in the comments or over in the public wiki on ‘Investing and Open‘. I’m playing with some ideas myself and will be adding them in there and here on this blog as they develop.

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Reflecting on OpenEverything: the rereat, the movement, and the meaning.

Reflections at Hollyhock

It’s been almost a week since the OpenEverything retreat and the reverberations continue. Heading into it, not having any roots in the open-source community, I was technically the biggest noob on the convening team. At the same time, what drew me into the meme and the event was a sense that something bigger was going on and that that something was rooted in a set of ideals and a drive for the practical that resonated with my core and my life experiences.

On the other side of the event I’m more clear than ever that ‘open’ is not something new but rather is reflective of a powerful shift in our culture, driven by technology and circumstance, that is fundamentally restructuring the systems of our society. A shift that is also at play in the social change and ecological sustainability movements as much as it is in the Open movement.


David Eaves talks about ‘open’ as a social movement which it certainly is. What excites me is that at it’s core it’s also part of the movement of our society toward a more just a sustainable state – a movement that’s based on a common set of ideals that transcends meme, sector, or method. A movement that works the tensions between ideals and practical. A movement of people that recognize themselves as interdependent parts of everything from their project to their community to humanity etc.

This is what has me so interested and where I hope people rally – around the thing that is unifying – the thing that represents the change in course our society so desparately needs. For me, this is coming out through contributions to the wikiOpen Organizations and Investing and Open – and a continuation of my work ‘venturing on the frontiers’ (which I’ll be sharing more on this site in the weeks to come.

And what about you? Do you feel this shift underway? How’s it showing up? How’s it changing you? What does it mean for you, for us, for humanity?

Exploring Open – Investing and Organizations

Well the OpenEverything Retreat turned out to be great event with over 30 participants and some great output. The Investing in Open Session brought together Helen King from the Shuttleworth Foundation, Joel Solomon from Renewal Partners, and Paul Biondich from OpenMRS. For the highlights check out the notes from the session and for those who want to dig a little deeper and contribute to the conversation there’s now a open exploration on Investing and Open in the Mapping Open section of the OpenEverything wiki.

Dive in and help shape this space.

The OpenEverything retreat is coming up and in prep I’ve setup a wiki to begin exploring attributes and examples of Open Organizations and practices for/what’s different with Investing in Open.

Have some thoughts? Jump in here.

The influence of open in venturing.

So what does ‘open’ mean for ‘venturing’ and venturing on ‘the frontiers’.

From some prior definitions, venturing is process of creating and evolving a venture, where a venture is an agreement among people to do things in service of a purpose and according to a set of values. More simply it’s about the process of organizing resources (social, financial, and human capital) toward realizing a certain intent.

If ‘open’ really is about a new mode of organization, then it is central to the process of venturing. It will inevitably impact every venture, the leadership and culture required, and the way in which we go about it.

Where strategy has been a dominant management driver in the past 3 decades, design will require greater attention. Conventionally, the control of financial and intellectual capital allowed organizations to directly control action and influence outcomes. In open, social and human capital are more dominant factors. They are also inherently less controllable which means we have to pay more attention to the design of systems versus control of action to influence outcomes and fulfil the organization’s purpose.

If this shift to ‘open’ is truly a product of the evolution of our society, as I believe it is, then this is inescapably important.

Furthermore, ventures that are themselves focused on the evolution of our society toward a just and sustainable state have to pay particular attention to open. These frontiers are necessarily about dealing at the edges of our current systems and structures – the turbulent space where ‘open’ is most effective.

Pulling this together – venturing on the frontiers requires a focus on:

  • social and human capital
  • a shift in culture, values, mindset, and leadership
  • systems design

That said, this doesn’t mean it’s time to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Strategy is still a useful tool, and we are still in the midst of a culture dominated by the conventional mode of organization. What it does mean though is that the compatibility of our underlying organizational culture, values, mindset, and leadership will determine the ability to make the most of convention in context of where we are going.

The point of ‘open’ – a new mode of organization.

In working on Open Everything I’ve been struggling to come up with why it matters and what it means to the common person. For people in the open source community or other fields where ‘open’ is a already at play they don’t tend to ask this question but if we are to ‘open’ the open meme, we certainly need to be able to answer it.

So here’s how I answer it now. (Ad-lib seesmic video answer below)

Open is about a new mode of organization.

  • Enabled by pervasive adoption of communication technologies and an emergent culture of people comfortably communicating with greater numbers of people, independent of geography or in-person relationship. (it’s a product of the evolution of our civilization – not just some fad formula for success)
  • Rooted in and requires values and mindset rooted in interdependence, contribution, collaboration as opposed to the currently dominant culture of independence, competition, and zero-sum competition. (it’s not about tools and techniques)
  • Relies more on social and human capital than financial and intellectual capital. (requires a different type of leadership)
  • Much more flexible and responsive to immediate context (great for situations where there is systemic turbulence like we are increasingly facing).

The implications of this are:

  • It will inevitably become a factor in your organization or industry whether as a result of: strategic intent (“let’s do some of this web 2.0 stuff” – “we need to listen to our customers/community”); the shift in our society and culture; or an increase in turblence/instability the systems that impact your organization
  • Working with it requires some deep shifts in culture and leadership
  • May (likely will) result in significant unintended changes to the organization, what it does, and how it does it.

While this is a quick first take – it certainly expresses what’s attracted me to this ‘open’ meme. I’m looking forward to mixing this into the conversations we’ll be having at the Open Everything Retreat in September (the agenda is starting to look good) and seeing what we come up with.

Of course, if you have any thoughts, ideas, opinions we need them all in working this through. Comment here, at any of the Open Everything events, your own blog posts (tagged with openeverything), or even in the Mapping Open wiki are all welcome.

What’s the point of open for you?

A crack in the dam – opening a new domain.

It’s been in the works for awhile and I now think we’re really starting to make a connection between web tech (2.0+), venture investing, social innovation. That connection is going to unleash some tremendous innovations and a surge in the activity directly working on the challenges facing our civilization. It feels like the emergence of a new domain that will take some very different approaches to change and influencing the course of civilization. It seems inspired by open source, technology innovation, financial risk taking, a venturing culture, and now a deepening and deeply felt realization that there are more important tasks to tend to.

I’ve been digging deeply into this for a while (Venturing on the Frontiers, Open Everything <site>, and The Great Remix) and these two posts (Umair Haque and Fred Wilson) have me feeling that something just shifted. What I love is that this isn’t just the same old folks getting into this AND that they are coming at it from an understanding of how systems emerge. Umair uses the language of DNA and Fred is living it through his investment approach in web tech companies.

Maybe what it is, is that all the different groups I’ve been working/having the conversations with (MaRS, SiG, CSI, Renewal Partners, Communicopia, Causeway, Tides Canada, and Good Capital) are using different language to talk about the same things.

I’m not sure. What do you think? Is this just a personal moment are others sensing that some thing has shifted too?

Benevolent dictators in the open movement

One of the interesting things coming out of OPEN everything (Toronto) was the idea that open projects are driven by what we were calling ‘benevolent dictators’. That phrase, while abrasive to some, seems to be resonating in a number of different conversations that I and others are having.

What it seems to do is counter the notion that open is a touchy-feely, everyone has to agree, happy place where everyone gets along. At the same time it reinforces the important and evolving role of leadership. What I’m starting to try and tease out is what are the qualities of open leadership that we’re really getting at? And which of those are core values – and which are situational reactions?

So far I’ve been seeing some aspects such as:

  • willingness and authority to make quick decisions based on intuition and sense of purpose and values (the DNA of the project)
  • a relentless focus on near-term goals vs. controlling tasks
  • ability to command/wield social capital vs. financial capital

So what do you think? What are you experiencing? What’s different?

Photo credit: invisible consequential

OPEN everything (Toronto) Reflection

The first half-day OPEN everything event happened in Toronto at the Centre for Social Innovation on Wednesday and was a great start to what’s going to be a very interesting series. Mark Surman – the mastermind of the series – opened the agenda and launched the group into an exploration of what ‘open’ is and what are the underlying principles.

I twittered some of my observations on the day and have a running tag which is going to capture the ongoing conversation (#openeverything). Some of the highlights for me were:

  • social capital is the key currency – more important than financial capital
  • leadership is essential and often looks like a benevolent dictator
  • control is of priorities rather than tasks
  • purpose and values are more powerful than strategy and logic
  • it’s better to graft on to an existing community than try and create a new one
  • open projects need to be big to be able to absorb the capacity of the community
  • open isn’t new (1 example was from the 17th and 18th centuries)

That last point helps also to remind me that this is part of our ongoing nature and evolution – and part of the Great Remix. What we are seeing as expressions of open now are necessarily coloured by the context of our society today. Clearly. So what will be interesting as we go forward with this is what are the essential enduring principles? What’s the heart of open? How do we kick-it up to kick-up the pace of our evolution to a just and sustaianble state? Fun.

Thanks to Mark, Tonya and everyone who participated. We’re on to something here.

OpenEverything opens today!

Well, it was only a few months ago when Jason Mogus, Mark Surman and I chatted on this concept of the event series that is now underway. It started as an exploration as to a new Web Of Change event at Hollyhock this year and Mark has taken it to what is going to be an amazing series that is going to push our thinking and the thinking of the ‘open’ community even further.

For more information, check out Mark’s opening post here, and the openeverything wiki.

Today, Toronto kicks off Open Everything: a global series of six (or more?) events about the art, science and spirit of open. We’ve got 60 amazing people registered who come from computer programming, community development and everywhere in between. It’s gonna rock.

There are going to be a few bloggers and hopefully a few twitters going live today and putting their follow-up thoughts out shortly thereafter… and I’ll do my best to link to them as they come available.