Monday, July 31, 2006

Elevator pitch

It's (past?) time I worked out my elevator pitch for this project. The blog description above (essentially the blog's subtitle: "It is my conviction...") is close, but really just tells you (the "venture capitalist" in our story) where I'm coming from, and not what I'm asking you to invest in. You may have read that I favor prototypes. Here is my prototype for an elevator pitch (understand that I'm racing to paint a picture here before the elevator stops, the door opens and you exit for your board meeting):

I want to help other people the way that I myself have wanted to be
helped. I recently spent some time seeking to join with others in
campaigns to work on driving positive change in the world.
Writing a check is one way to get involved, and I'd done some of that, but I was
looking for the next step. Trouble is, it's actually pretty tricky to find
compatible involvement. Peace corps, peace studies programs, political
demonstrations, etc, those are pretty easy to find. But everything I
found was either impractical or unsatisfactory. As a result, I... Oh, this is
your floor? Well, anyway, um, maybe next time I, uh, can fill you in a bit more...
Okay, so that was not really satisfactory as an elevator pitch. But before I try to "rev" the prototype, I want to finish my thought. Please set aside your VC persona for a mo'.

Yeah, so where was I? Oh, right. If you add up all the hands on, work-oriented
activities that are readily found on the web, there are a few thousand people
doing those things. If you look at the number of people who have
volunteered in the US
, and who might be willing to do some work-oriented
activity, you get a number more like 50 million! No way they can all join the
peace corps, but getting, say, 30 minutes a week from that many people can make
a larger impact than all the full-timers. And it wouldn't replace ongoing work;
it would be in addition to the impact that is already being made. There,
that's my point. Whaddaya think?

Wait, there's more! I'm one of those willing folks, but as a willing person I spent a fair bit of time trying to find the kinds of activities that 1) fit my skill set, 2) fit my schedule, 3) fit my passion profile (I just made that phrase up, but I think you know what I mean) and 4) fit my geography. [I just recently found VolunteerMatch...maybe that's the ticket for coordinated projects? But not for free form]

Hmm. Just noticed a problem: I feel compelled to "tell my story", but my story is too long for an elevator pitch. Maybe if I get it (my story) off my chest I'll be able to set it aside and create a crisp pitch. Bear with me a moment. What the heck, I'm 80% there anyway...

The stream of conscious that got me here was roughly:

Things are broken! Who is responsible for making the world better, anyway? Elected officials? Business leaders? People in other countries? Religious leaders? I've got it! The UN! Well, okay, so nobody's in charge. If so, we're doomed to solve only those problems that reach the level of crisis in first world countries. 2nd and 3rd world country problems will be dealt with on a "best effort" basis, i.e. "we'll get to it when we can." Maybe I should just quit...

No, something's not right. Aha! Here's the flaw! Turns out, I can be responsible. (Took a while to buy that.) So, how can I get involved? What can I do? A short bit of looking and I'll find 10 opportunites to make a difference! But not so easy. Lots of good sites (took a while to find, topic for another post) but most don't really help a willing soul connect with hands-on work.

For example, here's one of the better sites I've come across, in the sense that it has full page of things to do. But it's a challenge to use this site to reach out and engage. Many items I'm already doing, others imply a separate organization (but no tools to find such), and still others seem to lack credibility ("Cultivate a spirit of generosity by giving whole-heartedly of your time, expertise, and resources": does that actually work?) and another group seems way overwhelming for an individual ("Facilitate concerted action among non-governmental organizations on complex issues").

Part of the challenge was (and still is?) my own, uh, is it laziness? I've gotten spoiled by other coordinated web sites that walk you down a path. Like those sites that help you to customize a car, then link you to the nearest dealer, and The Schedule, that helps me find running events by location and date, and Amazon, that suggests similar products and provides customer reviews.

Well, at this point this post has taken me several hours (over several days) to write (and maybe it wasn't the most fun to read either). So I'm going to take a swing at the revised version and see what you think. Got your VC hat on again?
We are going to create a fully-webified version of "Building a Better World
for Dummies" [apologies to Jon Wiley &
]. Self-assessment tools and matching tools, an event schedule and
search tools for organizations and events. There'll be a wiki so everyone can
participate (we want broad engagement!) in defining a full set of views on
areas where improvement is needed, steps for implementing it, and the logic
and philosophy behind it. There'll be wiki articles to show
both why progress is urgent and reasons why it can and will be achieved.
In short, we're going to create an online infrastructure to support the work of
an army of doers working for a better world.

So...would you invest in this? By investment, I mean spend some time thinking about it, provide feedback on the concept as well as input into the wikis as they develop. If not, why not? As with entrepreneurs and their elevator pitches, if this one doesn't work, I want to evolve the concept and the pitch to something that resonates. I believe there is something worth pursuing in this "market segment".

Thank you for your time. Let's keep in touch. And here's where you say "We'll call you..."

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Books to make you think

After a couple of posts that took a bit of thinking, I want to turn the tables. Here are a set of links to a sampling of books that got me thinking when I read them; if you want to do some thinking, take a swing at these. I've got a ton more on my shelf; some I've read, some are still waiting in line.

[All the links are to Amazon. Yes, I own some Amazon shares; Amazon's tools for looking at reviews, etc, are pretty useful. Sure, I'll be crushed if you buy elsewhere, but I'll get over it -- eventually.]

Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, by Robert Wright. The book talks about the tendency over time for people to cooperate in ever larger groups. More specifically, it points out that, over time, ever larger groups are more effective at competing against less collaborative groups. So while it highlights the benefits that humans have gained from collaboration, it also highlights that the motivation is pretty much driven by an us-versus-them perspective. In that context, it's tricky to see how you get all of humanity to join the same team. Best shot is an H. G Wells / Steven Spielberg production. If it's just small matter of climate change or other global concern, most of those can be recast as a shortage of one resource or another. Still, I find it encouraging to consider the evidence for human willingness to collaborate on a larger and larger scale.

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond. The book reviews several distinct cases of how localized human societies blithely steered themselves out of existence by failing to recognize that their approaches were not sustainable. Although there are a few cases (notably Easter Island) where the signals seem pretty plain, there are instances where remarkable perception would have been necessary to recognize the issue, let alone fix it. Do we now have that kind of perception? Hmmm.

The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, by Hernando De Soto. De Soto is a Peruvian innovator with business experience in wealth western free markets. Self-described as "not a academic", he never the less has puzzled over why free markets don't do well in Peru and other third world countries. He must be more of an academic than he lets on, because he discussed the slow development of property rights in the early US in great detail. He makes a convincing argument that the absence of well recognized property ownership is one of the keys of a working free market system.

The Ideas That Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy, and Free Markets in the Twenty-First Century, by Michael Mandelbaum. This book walks through the progress of Wilsonian thinking in the past 80 years. Presents a strong case for the linkage between the 3 pillars: Peace, Democracy and Free Markets, which also highlights the difficulty of attempting to establish one or two of these in isolation in a given nation or region or culture. Together with De Soto's book, it's easier to understand the trials of getting Russia up and running in a western model.

The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, by Jeffrey Sachs. An inspiring and yet (remarkably!) credible discussion of the possibilities for progress in very poor third world countries.

Globalization and Its Discontents, by Joseph Stieglitz. This is something of an expose on IMF and World Banks policies, and how they are largely driven by money interests in the US, rather than a money-neutral desire to foster growth and progress in client countries. The sense one gets (okay, the sense I got) is that this is not some vast evil conspiracy to thwart the World Bank and IMF so much as it is the (inevitable?) result of the influence of money interests acting independently at many steps along the way.

And here's a special case: International Relations from Wikibooks. This book has the usual neutral but very readable style that you expect from Wikipedia articles. I'm still working my way through it, but already I've encountered an interesting suggestion. Evidently the prominent theories of international relations are "realism" and "liberalism" (also pejoratively referred to as "idealism"). My early perception is that realism is concerned chiefly with the power of states, and is focused on achieving relatively tactical or short term gains in dealing with states. In contrast, liberalism approaches international relations from a "what are our end goals and how can we work toward them." Seems to me that the real world requires a bit of both. I do get the sense that "pure" realism may "work better" than "pure" liberalism, but realism seems to have the disadvantage that it makes no attempt to align with a system of values.

Well, as I said, these are books that make me think. Clicking on any of the Amazon links above will take you to a book page; scrolling down near the bottom of the page you can see various book lists. I'm impressed with several of the lists, in particular this one.

So... think.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Basic ingredients, beta version

I believe in prototypes: quick bailing-wire-and-chewing-gum models to play with in order to clarify thinking. If the prototyping process isn't too expensive, go ahead and throw something together, then iterate as needed to zero in on a viable result. It's just not a good idea to try to build an Apollo rocket without some stepping stones along the way. After all, premature optimization is considered to be, well, the root of evil.

What's the cost of prototyping ideas? Your patience, I suspect. But please bear with me for a moment (or a post or two... or twelve), and with luck this we'll learn something. Here goes:

What are the basic ingredients needed to get a large community of willing people aligned and moving forward on making a difference in the world? With the briefest consideration, I suggest (the alpha version):
  • Willing people
  • A well defined inspiring direction along which people can align

Pour ingredients into a world. Stir. Let sit at 59F (give or take) for a few years. Serve.

Hmm. It's pretty straightforward; that's cool. In addition, there are some "existence proofs" around that support it (like this and this). Perfect. Except that we now have a protoype for something that was already available. Mm. Less than exciting.

Okay, so, let's strive for something new; let's take it to the next level. What are the ingredients required to get millions of people working together over extended periods of time to change the world for the better? Yeah, now that's ambitious. Is the alpha version of the basic ingredients sufficient? Doesn't seem like it... And the existence proofs are missing. No problem, here is our chance to iterate. Before we revise, let's consider what gaps there might be in the alpha version.

Interestingly, the gap is not in the first ingredient. There are millions of willing people out there in the US alone. Alright, so the missing bits have gotta be related to the direction ingredient. For one, it's challenging to articulate a really big inspiring direction. Still, that's not the real problem either, because a bit of looking will turn up some winners (here's one of my favorites) that others have been able to capture. So if inspiring directions aren't the gap, then what is? Here's what bubbles up for me:

  1. No single specific direction will work for all or even most willing people
  2. Many inspiring directions are either hard to translate into personal action (e.g. the example above), or demand more commitment than many willing people are ready for
  3. Willing people will need to be aware of a direction before they can align

That list pulls together several threads that have been winding through my mind lately. And after some consideration, I propose a new prototype of a set of basic ingredients (the beta version):

  • willing people
  • an extensible collection of broadly inspiring directions
  • captured lists of the personal actions that is supportive of the directions
  • a set of tools to help people identify inspiring directions that they can align with (e.g., a self-assessment tool to help match action plans to an individual's values and situation)
  • thorough, open and credible essays and discussions articulating how the actions support the directions and personal values (to support alignment)
  • web-based versions of all applicable pieces (for broadest, easiest access)

Now, this list is more interesting. I expect most of the elements are necessary; it's harder to tell if they're sufficient. In any case, although some of the items are present and accounted for (the willing people, as noted, plus good ideas), I believe that there's room for improvement with respect to many items in the list.

I'll take a stab at those in future postings.

For now, what is your list of basic ingredients? And where might one go to shop for some of the ingredients on the beta version above?

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Creating a culture

As I suggest in my profile, my mom was kind of a pinko hippie. Berkeley educated, lived in Laguna Beach before it was rich. She co-founded World Repair, Inc (or "WRI", which also stood for "we recycle it"), a 3-person recycling firm in the 70's that focused on newspaper. At the time, recycling was something of a fringe notion, as I recall.

That's curious in a way, because recycling in various forms (and under various aliases) has been around for ages. Perhaps the recycling programs that were promoted during WWII helped to cast recycling in a poor, even desparate light, so that later, as we began to enter the consumption age in the 50's, people felt that a rich country like the US just didn't need to deal with scraping-the-barrel behaviors like recycling. Nevertheless, over time recycling infrastructure has been built up to the point where it takes fairly little incremental effort to recycle a substantial fraction of our residential material waste, and even many businesses support it. Recycling is now a part of mainstream culture. Yes, more can be done, and support isn't universal; the nature of mainstream is to be in the middle. But there are labeling standards adopted in the retail goods industry to support it, and most households participate at some level. Kids grow up putting bottles, cans and paper in different receptacles than other waste.

What we need is a similar development in a culture of international goodwill. Many forms of goodwill exist and are even thriving, but for the most part they are engaged in by relatively few kind souls. It seems that engagement is modest at the local community level (soup kitchens, thrift shops, activities for poor kids) and falls off even more for activities that involve other countries. (This is my perception; links to statistics regarding involvement in good works activities would be much appreciated!)

So how do we go about growing that culture? What would it look like to have a culture of good works embedded in our lives? Well, that sounds like fodder for a few good posts.