Everyone an Entrepreneur
Today we launch the first-ever version of Aegora - a minimal, invitational Alpha, its features comprising perhaps fifteen percent of our "ideal" fully-realized vision. After flipping the switch and going live last night, it still feels strange to see Aegora "in the wild" rather than behind a safe, password-protected barrier.
This first small step has caused me to think again about why we have invested so many hundreds of hours and who knows how much money into designing and building Aegora so far.
It began with a problem, which sparked an epiphany, which grew into a vision.
It's good - even necessary - to revisit our visons every so often. Growing up, we all have visions of how we want our adult lives to be and, while many of these childhood dreams may be pure fantasies, many of them are far from it. As children, new in the world, we are in a sense better able to take the long view; to analyze from afar and to reach conclusions without fear or prejudice. As adults, shouldering one responsibility after another, it's easy to forget our dreams, to become cynically blinkered, and to dismiss our true paths as impractical fantasies.
Personally, I enjoy looking back at my childhood visions and goals because I have more or less stayed true to them - sometimes rather loosely, but rarely straying too far. Perhaps worthy of a B+. But it would have been easy to neglect them, to grab the low-hanging fruit - the illusion of security and a steady paycheck - instead of pursuing freedom and self-ownership.
And yeah, I worked in a cubicle for a while. It felt like I was betraying myself anew each day. If you ever feel like that, my advice for what it's worth is to listen to the feeling; embrace it, don't dismiss it as a necessary part of the human condition in the modern world. It's not. It's a pain message telling you that something is wrong and that you need to fix it. The more you listen to the message, the easier it'll be to fix.
So I fixed that particular problem by starting my own business, a technical communications consultancy. The business plan to sell services to local companies was all mapped out and I'd started canvassing potential clients - and then I learned about online freelance marketplaces. What a tremendous opportunity, to be able to buy and sell services globally! These marketplaces were just starting to come into their own, and I realized that - living in Asia and having fairly low overheads - I could not only compete favorably with bricks-and-mortar competitors on price, I could provide a better service. Because I was working for myself, and that gives anyone the impetus they need to push themselves that extra mile and then some.
So I did fairly well at that, started a web development company by bringing other freelancers together and packaging our services, and built up a pretty nice lifestyle doing creative work that I love. Then along came the problem.
In 2010, a PhD researcher from a European business school called me up - as a prominent freelance marketplace user - and asked, "Hey, back in 1998 the Harvard Business Review was telling us all that online service marketplaces would completely revolutionize society in general. Twelve years on, this hasn't happened; why not?"
I don't recall what answer I gave but it can't have been a very good one - I didn't have a good answer. It was a good question though. Freelance marketplaces had a few hundred thousand users, and were turning over a fair amount of business... Nothing to be ashamed of, but hardly a revolution. And to be honest, while they provided a great business vector - a way of finding people to sell to and buy from - no-one I knew really enjoyed using them. It was damned hard going, as a buyer or a seller. Essentlially, it was a matter of necessity; if you were hungry enough you would use them, but if you had another choice - you'd take it like a shot.
After a while mulling it over, it became clear that all of the problems that made freelance marketplaces so unappealing to use for the average person were deeply structural.
- You had trust problems because users existed as separate entitles, without community or linking structure. No matter how many feedback items or "points out of ten" someone had, there was always a trust gap that could not be bridged.
- You had signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) problems because, while they were called "marketplaces", they were really more like bulletin boards where people advertise service offerings and requirements. Bulletin boards work great for communicating in villages with populations of a couple hundred people, but they suck abominably in larger populations when there's one guy you need to speak to and thousands or millions of other people clamoring to get your attention.
- You had price, quality and differentiation problems - causing the "race to the bottom" - because people and their specialized, distinguishable services were being shoehorned into a marketplace that presented them as fungible, undifferentiated commodities. Thus, decisions got made on up-front cost alone rather than benefit-cost ratio, total life-time cost or other more mature criteria.
- You had image problems because buyers and sellers were structurally separate entites - a feudal, two-tiered society; "us vs. them", "providers vs. employers", "masters vs. servants". Pejorative labels like "virtual worker" didn't help.
A harsh environment in which to flourish.
Figuring out that these problems existed was nothing new. Plenty of other folks had done so and tried to solve them in one way or another. In all cases their solutions meant adding per-user overhead, as they tried to do quality control by paying someone to sit in the middle of each interaction. This meant they either remained niche (and expensive), or went bust trying to scale - burning millions in investor capital on the way down.
So, we had a filtering problem on our hands: how to design a filtered marketplace without increasing per-user overhead. In the real world our business evironment contains countless millions of other individuals, but we manage to survive without going nuts from information overload. So how do we filter out the signal from the noise and pursue our professions in the real world?
The answer of course is networking - creating personal connections. Like neurons forming pathways in the brain we tunnel through the noise to create meaningful relationships with people we know, respect and trust. Then we can use those connections rapidly and efficiently - no more noise. We create our own abstract villages that, in accordance with Dunbar's number, let us conduct our business efficiently.
That's a start. But the truly powerful thing about networking is that trust is transferrable across networks. If you need a contract drawn up, and I know a top-flight contract lawyer, I'll recommend her to you. You trust me, I trust her, so you'll trust her - just maybe a bit less than if she was in your own network.
Like ripples in a pond, trust diminishes as it travels across the links that connect one network to another. If you're five or six degrees of separation away from Kevin Bacon, he's unlikely to lend you his Lexus for the evening (or even his VW). On the other hand, if you're a friend-of-a-friend, maybe you have a shot!
What a useful model for getting things done efficiently - no wonder we spend so much of our time networking! So can we apply it to an online service? Do people like doing business networking online? Yes we can, and yes they do. LinkedIn proved it with a hundred million users and counting. Does networking solve our marketplace pain points? Yes - it does; remarkably well. Filtering, trust, quality, differentiation - all non-issues in a networked marketplace that allows selective filtering. Not only that, but it evolves the feudal (and futile) stratified social structure into an egalitarian, level playing field where equals do business in a civilized way. In fact, the model reminded us so much of the Ancient Greek Agora, the name stuck.
So why did this structural change solve the marketplace pain points so well? Two rules of thumb which, while endlessly debatable, generally hold true:
- What the Internet does best is to take location out of the equation.
- The Internet works best when it works like real life, only better.
So with that epiphany came the vision. Sure, we started off just trying to scratch our own itch and solve some problems that bugged us, and came up with answers that ought to do that. Answers that, by extension, would solve the pain points of other freelancers and service buyers. Not bad; we could make some people's lives a bit easier. But then I remembered that PhD researcher's original question: why haven't online marketplaces revolutionized society in general? Well - we'd answered that, hadn't we - so now that we had a model to overcome those issues, what would prevent Aegora itself becoming truly revolutionary?
On paper, nothing at all.
But what does "revolutionary" really mean in this context? Well, throughought history, the average Joe has seen a steady evolution in how he makes a buck, and what he has to put up with doing it. But this evolution has been brought about by a series of rapid and tumultuous revolutions, both sociopolitical (like the Enlightenment, or WWII) and technological (like the Industrial Revolution).
Once, the average man or woman was the possession of a king or nobleman, a slave. Then later a peasant, then a factory worker, then more recently an office worker. At each step in that evolution, we see the same pattern:
- An increase in population mobility and social mobility.
- An increase in choice set size.
- An increase in self-ownership.
- An increase in quality of life.
So what should we expect from the next step? Probably something like:
- Do the same work, without being tied to location. Manage the same businesses, from anywhere in the world. No more glass ceilings. Less social stratification. The playing field levels out.
- Govern your own schedules, holidays, workload, travel, etc. More areas of choice, more choices within each area.
- Work for as many clients as you like, on a consultancy basis. Hire whoever you like, on your own terms. Answer to your clients and answer to your hires, but ultimately answer to yourself. Less reliance on others.
- Radically reduce the costs and complexity of doing business. Take advantage of that cost reduction by reducing prices, increasing earnings, decreasing workload, increasing vacation time, etc., as you see fit.
By building a very small business and working through freelance marketplaces, I had (largely accidentally) evolved my own life in exactly these ways. In fact, I saw all those improvements the instant I stopped being an office worker and became an entrepreneur; it was like stepping out of the ocean onto dry land for the first time. Anyone who has made that same step will tell a similar story.
So now we have a model with the potential to democratize this evolution. We can remove the pain points preventing the majority from accepting online earning and business creation as part of everyday life. We can create a viable, usable alternative to traditional employment.
After the catastrophes of the last few years - catastrophes that, like cataclysmic earthquakes, have radically changed the landscape - the time is right. Such choice and opportunity is desperately needed in a world where old certainties now seem quaint anachronisms. The future of employment does not have to be a bleak dystopia - in fact, quite the opposite!
That's why this article is called "Everyone an Entrepreneur". That's the vision in three words. A world in which every person can create income and build products, online, in a pleasant enviroment, from anywhere on the planet. A world in which everybody can feel that great surge of accomplishment, freedom, and opportunity that comes from being the master of their own destinies. Where no-one has to rely on a someone else's say-so to follow their visions.
Maybe it's a grandiose dream, overambitious. Hubris, even. But I don't think so. It's attainable. It's certainly a scary, awesome prospect, but that's no bad thing!
But it's not going to happen if you just sit there and think to yourself "OK - sounds interesting... Let's see how it turns out." We are a long way away from the finished product and to get there, we need your help. By requesting an invitation, logging in, creating your profile, joining the Assembly group, and adding your voice to ours, you greatly increase the chances of success. It costs nothing but a few minutes of your time. Every Aegora member, every profile, every Assembly group member, adds to the weight, traction and user proof that Aegora needs to get this revolution off the ground.
If Aegora's vision strikes even the slightest chord in your mind, I urge you - join us!
Finally, as this is our first-ever blog post, I would like to take a moment to humbly and sincerely thank Aegora's co-founders - we've taken the first step and have a way to go, but if it wasn't for you guys Aegora would have remained no more than a vision - and visions, unacted upon, are worth nothing. Cheers!
Back Bay Beach,