My 2009 in review

I was just writing an update to some great partners of mine and realized I needed to include a recap of 2009 for some context on what’s next. That of course reminded me that I’d yet to post one. So here goes.

Into the wild.
Into the Wild

2009 was a pivotal one for me – a year of transition. It was full of new adventures and an unexpected closure of an old one. 2009 started with a bunch of excitement and energy around the Social Venture Commons, VenTwits, and A group of us had come together and were sweating out an experiment in peer-producing some apps that we thought could help people come together and build a better world by using public micro-messaging. We had some encouraging feedback on the concepts but we missed the mark and didn’t get enough traction (users or funding). We had felt we were constantly 2 weeks ahead of ‘everyone else’ and when we took stock of what we felt we’d need to get to a viable venture, we just couldn’t do it with what we had. I had failed at guiding us through to a viable product and estimating what it would take to get us there.

At the same time, my past life in energy and finance rose up and I became engaged in designing a financing framework around what the Green Energy Act Alliance hoped would make Ontario North America’s leading jurisdiction for renewable energy (it did) and particularly community power. The Act was tabled in May which then prompted another engagement to help the CPFund plan for a transition to the new reality. That plan, if successful, stands to be a great example of social finance and turn the renewable energy finance sector on it’s head.

Closing out the summer, my social finance sojourn continued with the opportunity to co-lead a Canadian contingent to the Social Capital Markets conference. Next came the privilege of doing a review of Vartana – an ambitious project that aimed to change the way the charitable sector banked in Canada. And then things shifted.

On my birthday I learned that a company I founded was in discussions on being acquired. Those talks came to fruition in early October, and while not a big exit by many standards, for our lean life it was/is a big turning point. It meant taking a breath and taking stock. It meant getting ‘our house in order’. It meant saying thank-you to those who’ve supported me.

An adventurous chapter with an unexpected plot twist was over. Thankfully it’s part of a book that I love… one of those books I just can’t put down.

The proprietary/open balance in startup mode.

Marine Institute Ireland, Strategic_Planning_S...
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve written some before on our efforts to peer-produce Shouldess Inc. (^shldlss), the developer of VenTwits and the for-profit cohort of the Social Venture Commons (^svc). We’ve decided to launch early and iterate rapidly with VenTwits and its group focused cousin GroupTwits (to be turned on soon). We’re also planning to open source our code once we’ve rebuilt a core based on how people actually use it.

I believe in the principles and power of peer-production but am finding it a constant tension as we build the for-profit startup. A big part of that I’m sure is my experiential conditioning. What’s been most recently tested is how much of our business strategy and development plans should be in the public domain.

Taylor Davidson, who is stepping up to help on the financial modeling and strategy side asked me point blank. I fumbled some lame answer that didn’t really say anything. As I’ve sat with it now for a couple of days, I’m actually questioning what if anything should be kept private. It comes down to speed of execution and I also think that the more broader the engagement the greater defensibility we have – provided we execute. If people are a part of it, they’ll rally to support it.

What do you think? Is there anything that should be kept private? Why? What are the risks? What are the benefits?

Right now I’m feeling ready to open everything up and push this experiment even further.

Foolish or fruiful?

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VenTwits is alive and the adventure begins.

This really began back at the StartupEmpire conference on November 14th, 2008 in the midst of Howard Lindzon’s StockTwits presentation.  Today, VenTwits (^VenTwits) is live as a the first property in a series of initiatives to help things happen and create the world we want.

Developed by Shouldless Inc. (^shldlss), VenTwits is a site for people building things they care about. We believe there is something special about communications that happen in public, 140 characters at a time. It seems to encourage a unique breadth and practicality of engagement such as the #hohoto party in Toronto. #hohoto emerged through Twitter (see SlideShare preso) and within 18 days of the first mention was sold-out to over 600 people, raised $25,000 in cash and 2 tonnes of food for Toronto’s Daily Bread Foodbank. All this without any one leader or cash investment – rather it leveraged parallel leadership from over a dozen people and the contributions of countless more. What if we could leverage what happened there?

Well, VenTwits is the beginning of seeing where this can go. Already in the first day, we’ve had people visiting from around the world to see what’s going on, some of whom quickly adopted the new tags and jumped right in. We are already working on another property that will come at this from a different angle as well. Once launched, we want to see how people use them to help things happen and with a few months under our belts we’re planning on open-sourcing our core code and firing up the Social Venture Commons (^svc).

The Social Venture Commons is being established as a non-profit organization dedicated to coordinating the development and application of this concept for the purposes of social change and public benefit.  If what we believe about this mode of peer-produced organization is true, then we have a lot to give. If we’re wrong, we’ll have learned a lot from trying.

In the past two months, I’ve met some extraordinary people – all through Twitter of course – that have come together to make this happen. As we’re building we’re experimenting with how to peer-produce an organization, how we create and measure value, and how we deliver public benefit.

We’re inspired by the potential of people coming together and contributing to the creation of things they care about. We believe that we are building uniquely helpful ways that help that happen. And we believe, that together, we can use it to create the world we want.

Please jump in and give it a try. And if you have any feedback or want to get in touch – please do.

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Getting started on VenTwits

VenTwits is about people building the things they care about. It came from seeing the potential in Twitter as a medium for discovery, connection, and practical engagement. With VenTwits we hope it can help you find new ventures you are interested, give you an opportunity to participate, and simply help things happen.

To get started, simply login to VenTwits once using your Twitter user name and password. If you aren’t on twitter there is a link right there where you can sign-up quickly and easily. Once you’ve logged in for the first time, VenTwits knows to follow you and look for anything you tweet that uses a VenTwits tag. From that point on, you can tweet through the site, through Twitter, or whichever way you twitter best.

Tagging is simple. In any tweet you post, simply add a ‘^’ in front of a venture name.  For example: ^VenTwits.  In addition to showing up in your regular twitter stream, that tweet will now show up on VenTwits as well.  You can also add another level of tag that allows for conversations to happen around a venture.  For example: ^VenTwits !feedback shows up as a conversation around VenTwits feedback.

That’s it. You’re all set.

Now, the best way to get started is to simply explore.  Visit and click on the links that you find interesting. Explore a new venture, jump into a thread, or see what the top contributors are talking about. What ever you do, follow your interest. And when you are ready, jump into the conversation.  That’s really when the fun begins.

And of course, let us know what you think.  We’re listening.

Opportunity ’09: micro-messaging based collaboration

A ripe red jalapeño cut open to show the seeds
Image via Wikipedia

My focus heading into 2009 is micro-messaging based collaboration. From where I sit I think it will have a profound effect on the way we organize resources to get things done and will mark a fundamental shift in shape of the organizations and systems of our future.

Some key features of this are:

  • Broadly accessibile: easy (web-based), distributed (available in any site), portable (sms compatible)
  • Action oriented: every interaction is a contribution, every contribution builds relationship
  • Interest driven: fluidly find, follow, and do things that *are* interesting at every moment

I’m tackling this through two tracks:

  • The Social Venture Commons (SVC): open-source micro-messaging based collaboration platform (non-profit/charitable)
  • 3P Launch Co (3PL): SVC based tool and property developer (for-profit)

Within those there are 4 core components that I already see emerging from the SVC platform:

  • application to formal organizations that are incorporating a degree of peer-production (VenTwits)
  • application to groups as a lightweight rapid action support system (GroupTwits)
  • application to tasks for seamless real-time management
  • personal context engine (semantic history)

The core platform is currently in development and I’m working on some founding partnerships for the SVC to support innovation integration, social tech incubation and organizational capacity. For the for-profit arm we are working to launch our first property (beta) by February.

In January I am seeking a seed round of up to $250,000 invested as either charitable donation (into SVC) or as a convertible debenture into 3PL (also need a new name). The structure being resolved for 3PL will include substantial equity participation for SVC and for founding collaborators in 3PL. Further equity/revenue participation will  be designed into each tool/property created in 3PL to further support peer-production.

At the core of all of this is this notion of peer-produced organizations. We’re off to a great start thanks to huge contributions by Joseph Dee and Matt Nish-Lapidus and there are already a handful of others starting to make their mark in this to. While I’m not stupid enough to think this is going to be easy or that there is any guarantee of success by conventional measures, everything in my experience and my body tells me that we are hitting on something that has the potential to make profound change and we’re going to have a heck of a great ride trying.

There’s never been a better time to make change – and never been a time where we as global citizens are as much in need. Giddyup!

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Peer-producing a for-profit startup.

Ant Party
By tarotastic (tjt195 on flickr)

I’ve been experimenting with peer-producing the first for-profit property coming out of the social venture commons. So far I’m finding once again that there is no better way to learn than to try doing it.

So what’s different about bringing ‘peer-producion’ into the mix? Well so far the difference I’ve most experienced is the degree to which I’m compelled to share what I’m working on at this early stage. It’s not what I’m used to but it is getting more people involved and having a definite impact on how the idea forms and how quickly it becomes reality.

It also brings up the question of how to share equity in the early stages which in my experience is best saved for those who 1) make a meaningful impact on core concept and 2) are going to be part of the team that will get it through the founding phase and into the growth phase.

The conversations around this from one side are around how do we distribute equity fairly using some form of measure as a baseline (e.g. hours in) and on the other side… non-existent (e.g. “can’t talk… building”). For me it’s my inclination to let it ride until we get a crystallization event – which will be in Q1 of 2009 and then take stock of where we are at and work it out in conversation. Logically I’d like a formulaic approach but nothing’s ‘felt’ like it would work yet.

So what seems to be tested by bringing in ‘peer-production‘ into a for-profit startup are:

  1. blurring the edges of organization (permeability)
  2. allocating parcipation rights to future wealth (distribution)

I think this might get easier as the venture gains momentum, size, and value because the value of each individual contribution will be smaller than the value of whole. I’m not willing to bet on that yet though – as that may simply be the lure of convention and I’m sure there will be host of other challenges.

It’s an interesting journey and would love to hear other thoughts/examples/discussion. Fire away in the comments or feel free to ping me directly.

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