It boggles my mind to think that I grew up in a country where most private enterpreneurship was a criminal offence, a felony. It was like this: create a business, be scorned by your customers at best, and at worst get caught and go to a labor camp.
There were of course people engaged in small business that escaped persecution. One particular example stuck in my memory: my father once pointed out a disheveled man rooting around in books at our favorite second hand book store. The store accepted books on comission, with the book owner setting the price. The disheveled man, my father explained, did not work anywhere. He made his living from his encyclopedic knowledge of the Soviet book market. He picked underpriced books and relisted them at market prices. I did not know it back then, but this is a very common tactic called “arbitrage”. In the US it is employed by multitudes of people, from library sale scroungers as disheveled as that man, but armed with handheld computers and laser scanners hooked up to Amazon.com, to venture capitalists buying bad software companies from badly run companies and selling them to even worse run software companies at billions in profit.
In the US “Rich Dad, Poort Dad” author is making millions explaining the benefits of enterpreneurship over salaried proffesionalism, and I am in fact workin for not one, but two business magazines: Fast Company and Inc. I spent almost five years here, but it’s almost time for me to go. I did not line up the next job yet, but months ago I told my boss that I was leaving so that he could hire a replacement. My replacement is here, and I’m close to finishing knowledge transfer.
I have a few startup ideas, but what scares me is not the Soviet Militia, but the lack of affordable healthcare and the lack of a trusted technical co-founder. I am mulling taking another corporate job, and luckily Google and its ilk hoovered up web professionals, so the market looks promising.
For months I would tell myself that I would leave when the Freedom Tower would eclipse WTC 7 where I work. I’d say that time is near.
I was brought up in an environment where 99% of non-governmental commercial activity was outright illegal, and the allowed kind was considered extremely unwholesome by association. Just about any item produced by the Soviet industry would be stamped with a price in order to discourage illegal arbitrage, like this condom, for example:
These days outside of California it’s hard to imagine a society that considers this much commercial activity evil, but when I was a kid, any schoolchild caught engaging in commercial activity of any sort could get in a lot of trouble. Personal entrepreneurship was literally a criminal activity. This kind of an environment tended to produce excellent jet fighters, but pretty crummy condoms.
In America entrepreneurs get a lot of respect (outside of government and hippie circles), and they tend to start early. You always read about the likes of Warren Buffet and Bill Gates having business ventures in high school and college.
My former co-worker told me a story about his daughter who got into trouble for her entrepreneurial activities in 2nd grade. She and her friend decided to cash in on the popularity of Webkinz. They went into the business of selling hand-drawn counterfeit Webkinz trading cards. Surprisingly they were able to sell a good deal of those. The trouble came when the teachers noticed that they were engaged in market segmentation and variable pricing (which is a topic of one of my favorite Joel on Software articles). You see, the girls were selling cards at a discount to the popular kids and at inflated prices to unpopular ones.
This episode only increases my dislike of schoolteachers. If I were in their place I would have praised the girls for entrepreneurship, and explained to them that it’s copyright infringement that is problematic, while market segmentation is perfectly kosher, even if a little sneaky. I’d teach them about premium vs generic branding and how some people happily pay a lot more for identical items in different packaging.
I hope one thing from the future will become popular in 2009: cognitive filtering. If the Internet was Dr. Dorian from the hit tv show “Scrubs”, I would be Dr. Cox with his list of things he cares very little about.
I got this idea from a science fiction book. In John C. Wright’s Golden Age Trilogy the singularity happened and people can upgrade and back up their wetware in any way they can afford. They still had the same problem that Henry Kuttner described in his short story “Year Day” – an overbearing amount of very innovative ads that masquerade as information and other spam. The trick in Golden Age was cognitive filtering: configurable software that removed any manifestations of anything an owner considered unpleasant: ads, sounds, pictures, symbols, and even people.
I like Twitter, and I like Robert Scoble. But I am tired of Robert’s relentless posts about friendfeed (sometimes I’m not even sure if he works with me at Fast Company or at friendfeed). Filtering this out would not be too hard – I could just ignore any post that has “friendfeed” in it. In fact, a Bayesian filter for Google reader, Facebook, and Twitter after a bit of training could do this automatically: I’d just flag posts that annoy me and the filter would analyze the words in the post, figure out which ones occur together more frequently in the posts that annoy me and hide future annoying posts based on that.
To take this a bit further, I would also like a Bayesian filter that would find me good posts from the firehydrant rss flow based on the ones I already like. There seem to be a few of these out there, but I find it hard leaving Google Reader.