A couple of months after I read Adam Davidson’s article What Hollywood Can Teach Us About the Future of Work, I quit my job. I realized that how I wanted to work in tech and in entrepreneurship was how my friend Meena works on film: she finds projects she likes, she attaches herself to them, those projects go out into the universe, she puts them into a portfolio, and she continues to call herself a director of photography. No affiliation.
I grew up loving film and wanting to do film. I think 8th grade me understood that I didn’t have the ability to focus on one project for the rest of my life and I wanted to work on giant collaborative projects that had the potential to make people (me) famous.
But I was sidelined by the competitiveness of film — everyone wants in and there’s no money. So by my freshman year of college I decided to do something else. That something led me to marketing tech products. Now I know a lot about customer acquisition and conversion optimization. Sometimes I use those powers for good, sometimes evil. Mostly I use them to build other people’s businesses.
Tech promised me a different way of working, and then it didn’t.
I think I was attracted to tech because it was a lot like filmmaking: a group of experts coming together to build something. Like film, there are huge successes, huge failures and short memories. There are famous people and gurus.
But there are many ways that tech — and work, in general — is failing the most creative people who do it. And that is why I’m ultimately leaving in favor of something else that I don’t know what it is yet.
There are a lot of talented people out there working for companies building products they don’t really care about. How many meetings have you sat in trying to figure out how to build or market a product whose target audience you neither understood nor cared about? We see companies like Mailchimp, Wistia, Moz, Lead Pages, Buffer, Dollar Shave Club, Basecamp, etc. nailing their marketing, their love of product, their design. We get handed directives from people we work for to do something similar, but you can’t fake the kind of passion that goes into building a product you really care about and only hiring people who also really care about the product. You can’t ape purpose.
There are too many startups building products no one wants. Entrepreneurs are so desperate to start companies they’re perpetually solving problems no one has. The industry is set up to fuel these ideas and only a privileged few have access to funding.
Being an agency, or freelancing, is hard. Because clients want things that are sometimes hard to deliver. And because you spend even more time building things for other people. This is why so many agencies turn into product-based companies or services.
There’s never enough time for side projects. Even though you have plenty of ideas, you can’t work on them (without interruption) at work, and if you quit your job to work on them full time, there’s no guaranteeing they make money. So side projects languish and become the stuff of late night panic attacks and conversations over beers.
No one wants to work for free. You want to build things and you have plenty of ideas, but you need a developer, designer, writer or marketer to execute them. But people rightfully need to get paid for their expertise. If you can’t pay them, you can’t work with them, even though they’re talented and you work really well as a team together. Because we all need to get paid, we’re stuck in this meeting about building a marketing platform we will never use instead of meeting about building our own products.
Companies want to monetize your creativity. We should be grateful for that 20% time, right? I don’t want 20% time. I want 100% time, and maybe I’ll give you 20% if I think your idea is good enough.
In search of bass player
For decades, people in bands have been doing exactly what I’m talking about: grouping together people with diverse talents and a shared idea and creating something new. (People I know in bands, or who used to be in bands, consequently, make the best project managers and marketers. They are people who are intrinsically self-motivated.) No one forming a band asks, “How am I going to get paid doing this?” Or, “What happens if we have one really successful thing, how are we all going to split the money?” People in bands realize that how you make money when not playing music is your problem and you’ll cross the royalties bridge when you come to it. First, let’s just play some music.
So if I were starting a band this might be easy, but as a person interested in building businesses and tech products, it’s an unorthodox way of starting something.
Rarely is this system, so familiar to theater companies and comedy troupes and musicians, extended to business without money getting immediately involved. Money is great — we all want to make money. Many of these ideas eventually will make money. But initially we just need someone with set skills who is passionate about the project, much the way a band needs a bassist who plays in a certain style and will get along with the group. Why don’t we structure projects like this in the tech and business space?
I have a few ideas for digital products floating around in my brain/on a Trello board. Some of them even have pet names and landing pages. You probably have these, too. Why haven’t we built them?
What if we all got together, put all these projects in a pile, picked ones we were all excited about, and built them?
I don’t have an answer for how this would work, and I’m not even sure if putting projects in a pile and building one thing is how it works. Rather than focus on the details and logistics, I want to see if this nebulous idea is something that interests other people.
When I kick this idea around in my head, it looks something like:
- Forming a collective of people who work together on projects that may or may not have a clear market or path to profit
- Working with a team of people to build things that have a clear path to profit but that aren’t full businesses (apps that people will pay money for, for example)
- Getting help with my own personal projects and helping others with theirs in an official capacity, from a core group of people
- Working with a group of people I like and trust to get feedback on my ideas, and having a clear system for workshopping things I’m interested in and that others are interested in
- Getting regular feedback on ideas and projects from a team of potential collaborators
Benefits I think would come out of this:
- Building some of these products could result in revenue
- Making the good ideas you have happen while testing and scratching off the ones that weren’t that great, rather than talking about them and never doing them
- Meeting new people to collaborate with on other freelance projects and potential future full-time work
- Being part of the group elevates your personal brand. As smarmy as that sounds.
- Not working in isolation on things.
Ultimately I quit because I saw a better way of working. I want to build things with people, not for them. I see a better way to collaborate for many people who are frustrated with the way things currently work and I felt like I could keep complaining or actually do something about it. So, bleh. Here’s the first part.
This piece was originally published as a manifesto in a shared Google doc. Laurel encouraged me to publish it so more people could access it.