Thursday, December 12, 2013

Capitalism & Community

Fred posted about capitalism today, noting the amazing wave of automation enabled by relatively recent advances in a broad range of technologies, and how that will displace millions of workers.

That is, of course, if we choose automation over people and communities. In some cases, the automation is welcome, innovative, and new in that it creates new business instead of disrupting existing ones (or simply solves a problem without creating a new business...not everything needs a dollar sign affixed to it).

But in most cases, the automation will be at the expense of people who held the same or similar jobs, to the benefit of people on the other end who want their widgets in 3 hours instead of 24. 

It's a choice. 

It's worth reading the blog, but even more worth reading the comments. The libertarians are of course always right and denouncing Fred's liberal tendency for actually caring about people, and the plutocrats, well, they'll let us eat what GMO-baed high-fructose corn syrup carbonated battery acid, unless we complain and then they'll shut down the Twinkie plants (yes, they shut down a profitable business at the expense of the workers but to the benefit or your coronary arteries). 
My comment is here, imperfect and off the cuff but it gets to the heart of the matter, obviously informed by people like Judy Wicks and

"Capitalism used to be the economic system in service of our democratic republic. The opposite is now true; we're a plutocracy.
But to the point: business owners will have to make the conscious choice to hire people instead of automating to squeeze every last bit of profit.
Communities are a mix of people (some employed, some not), businesses, professionals, etc. When businesses choose not to employ simply to make more profit instead of asking "how much is enough", we will see the end of our communities.
We already see this in communities around the country, whose jobs went overseas chasing profits through cheaper labor and now amazing but destructive automation.
I'm (we're) choosing not to automate (edit: as much as possible). I'm much more interested in people than profit. I love me some profit, but I'd rather live in a vibrant, strong community. To bolster that, our supply chain will be as local as possible, and together we'll build the antidote to unfettered capitalism: (maybe call it) responsible capitalism."

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Calling

It's been months since my last post. Forgive me, but I've been, well, thinking.

I met Judy Wicks in 2003 in Philadelphia at a meeting of the Philadelphia Sustainable Business Network. She encouraged me to go to an SVN conference in the Fall, and seeking like-minded entrepreneurs, I did (and seeking campaign contributions, sadly).

It was there that I learned about Greyston Bakery and dozens of other businesses designed to have social impact through the daily act of building and growing business. Greyston has an open hiring policy,  meaning that if there's an opening, they'll take the next person in line for the job regardless of their personal history, credit rating, homelessness, criminal background, etc.

Their motto is "we don't hire people to bake brownies, we bake brownies to hire people". Last year they did about $10 million in business; if you've had Ben & Jerry's ice cream with brownies in it, you've helped to hire people.

That commitment, that act of love, that recognition of basic human dignity, all delivered daily--that moved me and troubled me at the same time. I was on the way back up from losing a fortune from ChiliSoft by refusing to sell SUNW all the way down, and felt I needed to hit another home run. That feeling led to a great company, but also led to some bad mistakes, including, I think, delaying the transformation of my admiration of the Greyston commitment to my own commitment to something that reflected a similar basic love.

That bugged me for some time. Ten years. Last year I posted about the gnawing that I've felt about living a meaningful life, and what my life's work is or should be.

That was 18 months ago; I continued to delay, wanting one last swing. So when Vic asked me to lead BigLeap, well, it served the purpose of take another swing while doing something that could have positive impact.

When something gnaws at you for so long, you need to address it. Clearly I believed that this was important work. Why wasn't I diving in?

Part of it was money. I had none up until the sale of my last company this summer. Part of it was fear. Building a business is hard enough, and adding a requirement like open hiring at wages that reflect human dignity is that much harder.

This Fall I recognized that I wasn't pulling as hard as BigLeap needed me to. I wasn't nailing it. Yet I was looking for a place to live in the Bay Area or New York, and was about ready to get a realtor and make a move.

I rationalized it, thinking that I needed a break from Lancaster, that the space would do me good, that I should swing for the fences again. New York easily won out over the Bay area.

Then one weekend I took a hike with a new friend, someone I had only met once before. The conversation was all over the place, but it was one of the most important I've had in a long time. At one point she said something about how it was important for her to "claim her priorities".

That resonated with me. I hadn't set any priorities. I talked about my values, about how Lancaster seems to refuse to talk about poverty or deal with it on a human level. I complained (the optimism of dissent). But I hadn't claimed my priorities. Defined them, set them, committed to them.

I lived in New York City during 9/11; lost a dozen neighbors and one friend, and had trouble dealing with the regular reminders for months, especially when the wind would shift and blow the smoke north; I lived on Great Jones, which was close enough for the building to shake when the towers fell, and close enough to be smokey depending on the wind.

New York offered a lot, but I never felt a sense of community. As usual, I was doing it wrong, choosing to live in Manhattan while my friends were in Brooklyn, running in circles that cared little about me personally.

I felt alone after 9/11, except occasionally when I was with a friend from high school. So I retreated to the beach, where for two years I felt alone and no sense of community.

In 2004 I moved back to Lancaster to build the company. It took a while, but finally I found a lot of friends and now feel a very strong sense of community. I can't say I never feel alone anymore, but I do feel at home and there's comfort in knowing that good friends are just a few blocks away.

In looking to move to New York I wasn't honoring the importance of that sense of community. I knew it and felt it. I knew that by moving I'd be starting over to some degree, though I do have friends there, but it would never be my home, and I'd never be a New Yorker. And I know where home is--it's here in Lancaster.

That hike somehow triggered a real sense of purpose and focus. I've felt a calling for a long time, but haven't honored it, and that's what the gnawing was about all this time.

Not long after that I cancelled plans to live in New York. I talked with Vic about stepping down from BigLeap, which I did and now serve as an advisor. I decided to work full time in Lancaster on building the economy south of King Street, and ending poverty here as a moral imperative, or at least reducing it. (And yes it sounds grandiose to me too. It's a good sign of a an entrepreneur or a sociopath, take your pick).

Doing that isn't particularly complicated; people need jobs that at least pay living wages, and those jobs have to be within the reach of their skills. Recently I've been thinking in terms of thriving wages, and employee wealth through equity. How can we make that happen?

And what wage reflects human dignity? $7.25/hour?

Walmart pays poverty wages to many of its employees. To me that's simply morally wrong and we should not as a society accept that. Lancaster County businesses and consumers should also reject poverty wages by cutting off the companies that continue to do that.

actual sign at a Walmart in Cleveland this month
We end up subsidizing those companies through poverty support programs like food stamps, WIC, EITC, and a host of other programs. It's offensive that our taxes go to subsidize Walmart's lack of humanity, to support its poverty culture, not to mention its negative impact on US manufacturers. </end of rant>

So about a month ago I started working on this full time. And to leave tech.

Initially my job would be to organize social impact entrepreneurs, evangelize about values-driven businesses, raise investment capital for businesses committed to ending poverty through daily business practices, and a long list of other things we need to develop a healthy social-impact ecosystem which leaves no room for poverty or poverty wages.

That lasted a week :)

By the end of the week I realized we really don't have many businesses like this, or social impact entrepreneurs starting new ones. I felt like I'd be pushing around the edges, but not actually doing. And if anything I'm a starter, an entrepreneur.

So I decided to start a new company that will, metaphorically anyway, bake brownies to hire people. I'll still evangelize, still organize and convene (Judy's kindly agreed to speak at the Ware Center on December 6th as part of a monthly speaker series, and we started a social impact meetup), but my day gig will be the new company. I'm starting it with a close friend; we'll give more details when we're further along.

So that one conversation on a long hike down at Tucquan Glen had pretty powerful effects.

Instead of leaving again, I decided to go all in here in Lancaster--to stay here, buy a building here, invest here, build a new business here (south of King Street), organize like-minded people here, and make an honest attempt to serve the calling. To commit.

It's going to be hard (I've failed before and easily can again), but this is a great city and our people have open hearts and generous spirits. I'm happy this is my home, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to try to make an impact on what to me is our biggest problem.

We can call it social justice or economic justice, but what it comes down to is this: business can serve as the vehicle for our highest aspirations, and sometimes it's as simple as giving someone a chance to work for a living, at a dignified wage, a chance that others (so far) won't give.

Or if you're an existing company or consumer, it's as simple as buying something from a social enterprise instead of from Walmart, or a supplier who doesn't reflect your values.

Vote with your dollars. It matters. 

Ending poverty seems lofty. Maybe crazy. Simplistic. But if we embrace it as a moral imperative, and convince ourselves and other business owners to make our businesses reflect our personal values, to value people regardless of their backgrounds or skills, I'm convinced we can create a self-sustaining, overflowing wealth of opportunity that rewards all of us, in ways far beyond profit.

To me this is meaningful work, and if there is such a thing as a calling, for me this is it. I'm all in. That was one hell of a hike.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Coming Soon: This Blog, Again

I'll post something substantive soon. It's time to get back to the daily post :)

Wednesday, August 28, 2013


I'm on the Chicago airport, sipping coffee and listening to unfortunate jazz while checking email. I just picked up the 13" Air, so I'm enjoying the size of the screen and relative comfort of the keyboard. And I'm hoping I filled it out with enough software and old code to do some damage on this trip.

Traveling can be clarifying. I've been in a funk off and on for 5 years. The past year hasn't been great personally or professionally (until we started BigLeap), and I've let a few things slide that deserved more attention.

Six weeks ago I started jogging, kind of like Forrest Gump in that there wasn't any reason for it. Health in my case, but I'm not a fan of running, so it was surprising when I just did it. Having running shoes on put me in the frame of mind. Bear digs it because I'm not lagging behind, and I dig it because our hikes are shorter and more productive.

Carrying a bag puts one in a different frame of mind, too. I'm looking outward, not inward. People are so different in airports and planes, different from people I know and see regularly. Things seem more possible. I plan my next few days, check to make sure I've got everything I need for the 4th time ( I don't, but I can recover), read more, think about the future instead of the path, get out of patterns of thinking and doing and into something new.

One attraction of traveling isn't about leaving yourself behind, it's about leaving the old clothes of the past that dressed you every day and putting on new clothes of possibility. I do best when I live in the possible, that space between the present and the future, the place where practicalities and limitations are malleable, lightweight, and re-shapeable like putty.

Life just changed significantly with the sale of the company; the biggest difference is that the obligations I built up with a lot of people have been satisfied. You sell the promise, the hope, the dream, the possibility, knowing you'll make best efforts and there's a pretty good chance you can deliver.  This one took too long in that sense, and I think it weighed heavily on me.

So onward--to the next one. And the next. If you're a starter, that's what you do. Start things.

Plane's boarding.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Thoughts on The Sale of GiftWorks

A week ago FrontStream announced that it had acquired Mission Research, makers of GiftWorks (the company had changed its name to GiftWorks so that's how I'll refer to it herein).

I'll try to carve out some brief insights. I'm writing this from the perspective of an entrepreneur to entrepreneurs. 
  • When I started the company with Dave and Chris, nonprofits had only high-priced, poorly designed software to choose from. Our mission was to give small nonprofits powerful tools for an affordable price so they could focus their resources and time on their missions, and not on software.

    I feel we accomplished that with the 2006 release, and since then positively impacted over 10,000 nonprofits. The company is taking great care of its customers--more now than at any prior time.
  • In deciding whether to accept an acquisition, we had to consider what scaling the company would like, whether our customers would be better off or not, how all stakeholders would fare, and whether we had accomplished our mission, and whether there were alternatives, which weren't there in 2002.

    In order: I felt that scaling the company was a great path, but also felt our customers would do well under either scenario, that we had accomplished our mission, and that there are sufficient, viable, easy-to-use, affordable alternatives to GiftWorks (mind you, GiftWorks is still better as a total user experience, from the software to the support). I also felt that Frontstream's was very much a complementary offering, and that our customers will be taken of well.
  • I like that the team will continue to grow here in downtown Lancaster.
  • I don't like the M&A process, dealing with lawyers, competing interests, and I'm certain the CEO feels the same way, and likely experienced much worse than I in terms of the stress and amount of work involved.
  • My time at the company...I had some of my best and worst days of my life there. I gained a lot of experience, learned a lot, screwed up enough that it hurts to think about, gained many friends and lost a few. Overall it was entirely worth it, except the friends thing. I probably would have done some things differently looking back, but I'm proud of what we built together and grateful for the help we received along the way.
  • The company will do very well if it continues to focus on serving customers. Steve has done a great job focusing on operational efficiencies and building a dedicated team. I'm sure he'll do well as he continues to grow the company under Frontstream's ownership.
  • The professionalism of the nonprofit sector seems to really have evolved among small nonprofits, which has been great to see. I'd say that GiftWorks and its education programs have been a positive contributor to that. I, on the other hand, have not evolved nearly so nicely :)
  • Working with Dave over the past few years has been one of the rewarding aspects of this, as well as serving with my old friend Tim Abbott, who's a terrific nonprofit professional and a helluva singer. Tim was a great coach for me, especially when my temper could have gotten the better of me.
  • In the future I'll be more careful about how much capital I raise (if any), and will be less flexible around terms. Investment terms really need to reflect alignment of goals of the founders, employees, and investors, and that wasn't the case in my opinion and experience. 
The confidentiality agreement means I won't be writing much more about this period, except in an obtuse, referential way, but I'll figure out a way to convey some of the lessons learned over time. 

Thanks to everyone involved. We built a good company, and it's continuing to have positive impact on the world. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

The New Next Thing: BigLeap

I've been working on something with my friend and now co-founder Victor Cho. Forbes blogger sums it up nicely.

BigLeap is a platform for changemakers (someone who sees a problem or issue and is willing to act to solve or improve it) to rally help by holding a competition with a crowd-funded reward--as though they were raising funds on Kickstarter for the prize money.

The pilot test is running now, which is what Forbes talks about. A neuroscientist from Berkeley is the champion (changemaker) behind the challenge.

It's very early in our development and we have a lot to figure out, but the basics of the app are built out and we have more challenges on the way.

What I like is that it gives us the power to focus attention on a problem and get the brightest minds around the world working on it. The games challenge reward is relatively modest at $25,000; you can imagine 500 people contributing $50 to catalyze an outcome.

But we think it can work at scale, too, with global problems like solar adoption rates. Solar power is ubiquitous in Germany; that country decided to end its dependence on potentially dangerous nuclear power and fossil fuels.

But the price per kwH is still much higher--twice as high--so the payoff for a typical homeowner in the US isn't fast enough to inspire mass adoption.

What if someone discovered a way to double solar efficiency, while simultaneously cutting the cost of manufacturing? Imagine a world where all power is supplied by the sun--no more coal plants putting mercury into our waterways and oceans, no more gas-powered vehicles, no more nuclear meltdowns like the one in Fukushima.

How much would you give to see such a positive outcome? What if 2 million people contributed $50 toward the solar challenge?

And how many bright minds would come together to work on solving that challenge because of the promise of the outcome and the $100 million prize?

Most challenges, we think, will be more modest and more localized. In Lancaster, PA, we have an ugly public square called Lancaster Square. It doesn't reflect the character and nature of the town or its people; it reflects the idiocy of 60's-era "urban renewal"--ugly, linear, concrete edifices.

I'm going to be the champion in this case and start a design competition with a crowd-funded reward pool of $5,000. We can easily imagine 100 people kicking in $50 to inspire designers, architects, students, or anyone to come up with the best use of that space, or the best building concepts. I have no talent for this, but I bet we all know someone who does.

That's the second pilot--it will help us work out the kinks, and maybe it will influence the development of that space.

So that's the new thing. It's kind of like XPrize meets Kickstarter, if XPrize were faster moving and provided tools for anybody to be a changemaker. I've wondered why it takes them so long to raise prize money and why some prizes are unfunded, but I suspect it's because they depend on grants, corporate sponsors, and maybe the internal plaque that can develop when you institutionalize an idea.

We bring the crowd to the party, and break down those barriers. I'm certain there will be copycats, but for now I'm grateful to Vic for coming to me with this idea.

It's going to be a fun one!

Monday, August 19, 2013

GiftWorks/Mission Research Picked up by Frontstream

I'll blog about this later today or tomorrow. Here's the link to the news. It was a good outcome all around, and I'm happy to see the potential given the FirstGiving integration.