I like the idea of “entrepreneurship” a lot when it describes the compression of several complicated things into one concept or practice. The first would be a structured kind of practical creativity, a purposeful or directed path to having and expressing a “good idea”. The second is a relationship between individual creativity and collective action, a known recipe for scaling up the ideas of a very small number of people to an organization that can make and do something tangible and material. The third is a concern for organizational sustainability: an entrepreneur has to have a plan for how their idea and their organization will bring in enough resources to grow, thrive and live on into the future. The fourth is, or ought to be, a kind of humility about the conditions required for success–an entrepreneur should know that their ideas have to undergo a genuine testing in markets and survive the whims and reactions of potential customers, unless the entrepreneur’s idea is based on rent-seeking or parasitism of some kind.
Entrepreneurial action can represent the best social and imaginative potential of modern liberal societies. It’s also a great way to focus and challenge any new initiative or project. Do you want to mobilize groups, sustain collective action? Then it’s totally fair to ask, “With what resources? With what costs or liabilities? With what kind of plan for organizational and financial sustainability?” Do you have a great creative vision, or some change in material practices you’d like to encourage? Thinking “entrepreneurially” is a great filter or structure for approaching those aspirations.
What I do not like about “entrepreneurship” is when it starts to collapse into itself, when it’s an alibi for a gold-rush approach to life and aspiration, when it’s part of a frenzy.
Businesses fail, often from the very start. That’s not news: it’s what every MBA program in the world builds its courses around. Sometimes a good idea fails because the time isn’t right: too late or too early. Sometimes an idea fails because it’s sabotaged by the wrong mix of people working together or because there’s a stubborn technical problem that can’t be overcome. Sometimes it’s underfinanced. Sometimes a rival sabotages it. Sometimes there’s just something quaint and sweet and yet lightly pitiable about how wrong-footed the whole thing is: we’ve all seen a certain-to-fail store, restaurant or a product that made sense only to the person who owned it. Failure is not a reason to dislike entrepreneurial projects–though incipient failure is what sometimes curdles an honest try into dishonest rent-seeking, particularly when there’s a big enough pool of naive or powerfully-connected investment capital backing the business venture.
What’s bad is when someone sets out to start a business the same way a shark sets out to find what’s bleeding in the water. Not because they have an idea for a better mousetrap, or see a way to better sell someone else’s better mousetrap, but just because there’s money to be made, because other people are making money, because there’s gold or oil being dug out of the ground somewhere. I dislike it when I see someone who has a primal hunger to get in that game because either they’re someone else’s mark or they’re sooner or later going to be treating any possible customer like a mark. Or both.
Case in point. We’re in the middle of another dot.com frenzy at the moment. It’s not as big an investment bubble as the last time around, but there is a lot of hucksterism, almost as many Pets.com-style Potemkin-village startups trying to sell their new social media next-Facebook next-Twitter gimmickry. Even when the core idea is not really a bad one per se, as in the case of Pinterest , it’s hard to summon much enthusiasm for services or sites that are just leveraging some of the core functionalities of existing social media into a slightly new interface. Sure, maybe you’re the guy who will get Instagram-level lucky and prop up a shell of something that worries Facebook or other stumbling giants enough that they drop a load of their cash hoard on you to just add one more bauble to their overstuffed Christmas-tree like interfaces. Most of the time, you’ll just burn some investors’ money and then sell off whatever marginal value is left in the project for bargain-basement prices. Because when you don’t have a real idea, or worse yet, you just have an idea that other people have had already and you’re just putting a new coat of paint on it, there’s no other lesson to learn out of failure except “next time have a good idea”.
Let me give an example of the problem that’s come to my attention in the past week. I’m singling out this company not because they are unique, but because they are an example of a common, recurrent pattern. Lore.com, formerly Coursekit, has started pushing hard for campus adoptions of their product, which is basically a course-management system with a sideline of asynchronous forums oriented towards campus life.
Forgive me my slightly douchebaggish irritation here. I honestly don’t think the young folks who are trying to sell Lore really know how many times some of us have been approached since 1999 by companies with almost the same business model and the same strategies for making themselves look like more than they really are. But Lore has it even harder than some of the dot.com start-ups because this is a crowded space now filled with not just long-standing course-management systems but a bunch of big, new MOOC companies like Coursera.
Lore is little more than a new interface for the product idea behind Blackboard or Moodle. The main distinctive twist that I can see is not in the product but in the marketing: the company is borrowing an old technique used more often by certain non-profits like the PIRGs and political groups, and trying to enlist students as their salespeople–it’s a technique as old as getting comic-book readers to sell Grit. And of course they’ve been careful to do whatever’s required to get themselves to the top of a Google search, so well done there.
There’s a lot of the standard here-we-go-again issues with newcomers–a TOS that gives Lore.com the right to reuse or display content contributed by instructors or students, though at least they don’t try to claim perpetual copyright over uploaded material like some other start-ups operating in this domain. The interface? Eh, well, you don’t have to go very far to outdo Blackboard or Moodle in that regard, that’s like showing up at a dog show and beating out a hairless chihuahua who has a skin condition with some mutt you picked up at the shelter. The Lore interface is prettier but in its own way busy and intrusive–there’s an overlay layer in the tutorial that is very difficult to get to go away so you can see the underlying workspace. Also, I logged in with Facebook instead of a separate account and noticed after creating a sample class that you can’t delete a course you create that way because you don’t have a local password. (Nor of course is there a way to automatically revoke Lore’s stored data from a Facebook login if you revoke the access from within Facebook.) Nothing particularly extraordinary in the world of social media, where subtle and unsubtle ways of holding onto and storing up both content and data from former users are pretty common.
Another thing that’s drearily typical is the attempt to appear much bigger and more established than you in fact actually are. Lore is used at 600 schools, says the front page, but the details of this use aren’t hotlinked from the university and college seals that appear on the front page or anywhere else. Go to “learn more about teaching at Lore” and there’s some slides at the right that look like examples of Lore in use. Whoops, not linked either! Too bad, I wanted to see what “Learnign [sic] Python the Hard Way” was all about. Presentation.ppt would also be engaging, I’m sure. The generic quote from “Junior, Princeton University” is certainly convincing. You can see Navigating the Universe taught by “Buzz Aldrin”, which turns out to be just another sort of short demonstration not-really-a-course. (If you can get the overlay about all your teaching tools to go away.) But hey, instructors at 600 schools! I wonder who they are? Maybe some of my colleagues! How odd that their courses aren’t linked all over the place on the Lore site or even from the home sites and pages of the hosting departments and institutions. Could all of them be private courses, except perhaps the one that angel investor Peter Thiel taught using Lore at Stanford last spring? But how odd to rush to use a new product that trumpets its interoperability with social media and then make your courses private.
Looking at the blog offers reassurance. Lore is now adding features that are standards in social media and in existing CMS: revolutionary! Read down and you’ll see that the founder thinks that the market opportunity for Lore is reinventing how the Internet and education can work together. It’s a good thing that nobody else seems to be thinking about that! Or so you’d guess, given that the Lore blog (or anything else at the site) seems blissfully unconnected to or unaware of the numerous organizations, scholars, institutions and projects that are and have been concerned with that rather large question for a long time. I’m old-fashioned, I guess: I always thought the best demonstration of the virtues of online interaction and social media were the density and richness of the way that they linked to each other. It’s odd to trumpet the advantages of a dialogic medium without doing anything besides talking about how great you are.
So at this point I’m still looking for an archive or collection or a page o’links that would show me all those instructors with all their courses at all those institutions. Hey, the CEO is taking and teaching some Lore courses and they’re actually linked, you can click on them! So let’s see: he’s teaching a course on Lore itself. Which is empty. A course for the “campus founders”! Which is a single marketing blurb from Fall 2011 that ends “here’s what that entails” and leaves you in suspense about the entailing. “Contemporary Ethics and Foundations of Decision Theory”! There’s a real course. Taught by a dead philosopher at the University of Reddit. Is that one of the 600 institutions? The dead philosopher actually appears to be a live student, judging from the YouTube lectures. The course did “peak” my interest enough that I looked at a reading, an essay by the philosopher S. N. Balagangadhara at his blog. Which is a decent find. But at best all I’m seeing here in this case is a sample course that doesn’t appear to offer any advantages over Coursera or its rapidly multiplying horde of siblings and competitors. What else is Joe taking? A “course” that consists of a few Stanford 1st year students talking to each other about how it’s going so far this year. I wonder if that counts as one of the courses at “600 institutions” taught by an “instructor”? And he’s participating in the group (not course) Art, Design and Computer Science, whose sole activity to date is the statement by its founder that the group mission is to “make cool shit”.
(By the way, I’m guessing that if you want to witness this stuff as I saw it in a morning’s exploration of the site, you’ll have to hurry, because in my experience, when you poke through the hollow surface of a new social media service that’s trolling for the customers who will create the content that the founders can’t be arsed to create for themselves, you usually stimulate a round of frantic attempts to throw up something a bit more real to fill up the empty links and galleries.)
I’m guessing that the main hope here is getting bought out by whichever MOOC company manages to come out on top in the current feeding frenzy. What frustrates me is that some bright and capable people are wasting their time chasing a buyout when they could actually be making some cool shit. To make cool shit at the intersection of digital technology, social media and higher education means actually going out and finding out what specific cool shit needs to be made, being humble enough to wait for the genuinely good idea, and starting small enough that there’s a chance of actually not only having the good idea but bringing it into being. That also probably means to stop borrowing the flawed intellectual property and organizational DNA ripped out of the last round of Facebookery as well as the ambition to be the Third Coming of Mark Zuckerberg. That script and structure has given a bunch of hopefuls the wrong idea about how you succeed in business. You want to make the product that catches on, figure out what the real needs are, learn about the customers you’re seeking, match up what can be done with what ought to be done.
I’ll put up a sequel to this post a bit later this afternoon with a bunch of real needs, real ideas, available for free to any budding entrepreneur interested in higher education and digital technology. One warning in advance, though: if some of them haven’t been taken up yet, that’s because they either demand an actual understanding of existing colleges and universities, or because they call for a completely different business plan than the standard social media underpants-gnome trick of “luring people in to make content for us, trap their content inside our interface, try to monetize the content our users have made without pissing them off so much that they pull their content or stop making content”. Lore isn’t the only start-up that might want to think beyond the limits of that model: you could easily rattle of a list of sixty or seventy gold-rush companies that aren’t much more than a name, an interface and a bunch of ambitious young folks chasing a payout.