My business influences

posted by Jason Kottke Mar 09, 2005

As you may have noticed by reading the site in the past year, I've been reading and thinking a lot about companies...how they succeed, why they fail, how to approach them from a holistic sense so they make sense on a human scale and not just from a business perspective, that sort of thing. In deciding to start my own little company of one, here are a few things I've run across that have influenced how I'm approaching it.

Coudal Partners is a design studio based in Chicago. Like many blogs (their site is a little more than a blog, but we won't get into that now), their site features advertising in the form of text ads in the top left corner of the page. But they only accept advertising from companies whose products they have used: "sell us something then we'll sell you an ad." I love this because it ties advertising back into its word-of-mouth origins, makes it more human, personal, and believable. (More on advertising stuff in a few days.)

I don't have many heroes, but Craig Newmark is definitely one of them. He's had offers to sell craigslist for millions of dollars, many offers from VCs, he could charge for all listings on the site, or he could fill the site with advertising, but this is what he wants out of craigslist (via Wired): "get yourself a comfortable living, then do a little something to change the world". The many articles I've read about Craig have really reinforced for me that you need to let your values drive business decisions and not the other way around.

I've mentioned this a few times on the site before, but Ludicorp, the makers of Flickr, has the one of the best quotes about business I've ever read on their about page. It's an excerpt from Disclosing New Worlds: Entrepreneurship, Democratic Action and the Cultivation of Solidarity by Charles Spinosa, Fernando Flores & Hubert Dreyfus:

Saying that the point of business is to produce profit is like saying that the whole point of playing basketball is to make as many baskets as possible. One could make many more baskets by having no opponent.

The popularity of Flickr has put Ludicorp in a tight spot and it seems like they'll need to get big somehow in order to keep up with it (rumor is they've been purchased by Yahoo!). It's a reminder that you may succeed beyond your wildest dreams and you need to be ready for it to happen. Whatever their path is, I hope they can keep true to the values that have guided the company thus far.

When Google decided to pursue their IPO, the filing included an "owner's manual" written by Larry Page, one of Google's two founders. Google is aiming high — focusing on the long term, trying not to be evil, taking on risk, not giving too much control of the company over to shareholders — and it will be interesting to see how they fare over the long term. Google's gotten a lot of shit for aiming so high, especially about the "don't be evil" stuff, just like the NY Times gets criticized for attempting to produce objective journalism, but I think that's unfair. I'll choose a company with ideals they're trying to live up to over a business that's aiming for the status quo any day of the week.

TextDrive, a hosting company, eschewed venture capital and went right to their users and asked them to pay their startup costs (in exchange for lifetime hosting). They raised $40,000 in 75 hours from the VC200. That's what's called "creative thinking".

Dave Eggers gets a lot of crap, but I like the way he's trying to run McSweeney's:

But the way that McSweeney's is run is, "Can there be a way that what they call mid-list authors, people who don't sell in the Danielle Steel category, can still have an audience and still make a living?" McSweeney's has very little overhead, to the degree that we can sell 6,000 copies of somebody's book, and he can still get a decent amount of money, because he's getting more per book because of the low overhead. That's still our goal. I was just sort of going along with the same business model, like, "If we sell 50,000 copies, then everyone will do fine, and life will stay quiet."

Not trying to take over the world, just doing something in balance with the lives of everyone concerned.

David Bull is an artist who makes fantastic woodblock prints. He doesn't number his prints, doesn't sell through collectors, doesn't even offer individual prints, and yet he's been making a living from his art for more than 16 years. He sells subscriptions of his prints through his site and here's a bit of his philosophy on that:

I like making prints, and am not afraid of the physical work of printing them. Unlike many artists, who prefer to keep their edition sizes small (to save work, or to keep things 'exclusive') and who must thus charge high prices for their prints, I prefer to make more of them and keep the cost to each collector as low as possible.

There are lots more people other there doing wonderful things with their business lives (37signals, the independent Mac developers like Ranchero, Delicious Monster, and Panic, etc.) but that's enough for now.