Monday, May 23, 2011

The Snuggie and the Web Calendar

Long ago, there was a county where people lived and grew food.

The wealthiest family in the county grew apples, and they were acclaimed to be the best apples available at any price. Other families grew other crops, like corn or beans, and they weren't as wealthy as the family that grew apples, but that was OK because everyone had enough.

Then, one winter, as some of the poorer families were meeting to drink and pass the time, the eldest son of one of those families observed, "You know, apples are a very profitable crop. I don't see why we can't all grow apples, and then we'll all be wealthy!" The others nodded in agreement, and went home to tell their families, and word spread like wildfire.

That spring, all the other families in the county plowed under their fields and threw out their seed, planting apple trees instead. At harvest-time, the square was filled with families selling their newly-grown apples.

Two months after the harvest, everyone was dead. From apple poisoning, most likely.

The story doesn't begin with Jonathan Coulton, but he's the guy you're most likely to recognize, so we lead with him. Earlier today, Coulton posted an essay to his weblog; a rambling, largely thoughtful musing on a couple of 'money guys' who seemed to think that Coulton was largely a fluke and that his success as a musician -- enough to earn a living doing nothing but his chosen trade -- probably wasn't a 'viable business model'.

On the one hand, I think the so-called money guys had at least one reasonable point: if you're planning to go into business for yourself, and your business model is "I'm going to be Jonathan Coulton," then you're probably not going to make it. After all, there's already someone in the market with much more expertise and experience at being Jonathan Coulton that you have, so you can't help but fail to measure up.

On the other hand, Coulton pretty much makes the same point in writing, "'Writing a song that gets discovered on Slashdot' is not a business model, any more than 'putting sleeves on a blanket' is a business model." Which pretty much seems like it should be common sense, but apparently requires some re-iteration. (More on this later.)

It's what Coulton wrote next that got me thinking:

I make songs that are good and then I sell them (and concert tickets, and Tshirts) to the people who want them – that’s my business model, and it’s patently obvious that it’s replicable because I stole it from every other recording artist in the world.

The first thing that struck me was that Coulton's making a value judgment that's not really necessary, in the sense that he's saying that his songs sell because they're 'good'. I'm not here to argue with Coulton; he's entitled to his belief, and I'm sure he puts a lot of work into his music, and his fans would almost certainly share his opinion. No, my point is just that something doesn't necessarily have to be 'good' to be salable. (If you don't believe me, feel free to browse whatever week on the Billboard charts you'd like for the past few decades. I'm sure you can find something to criticize.)

The point is not that Coulton's songs are (or are not) good; people like them. Considering how much music Coulton has given away, I'd argue that people liking his songs isn't really the point, either, since what he seems to be selling most is entrance into a lifestyle decision -- one where being a nerd is awesome and flying one's freak-flag is celebrated. Consider, Coulton is also currently organizing his second cruise -- this is a guy who can sell out cruise ships, which arguably isn't totally about the music (though in his essay Coulton says he rarely tours or does concerts any more), but about being able to say that one was on a cruise ship with Jonathan Coulton.

Coulton has found an audience that identifies with him and is willing to pay for the privilege of showing their sense of identification. Before we go on, let me say that there's absolutely nothing wrong with this whatsoever; Coulton has every right to make a living based on people wanting to identify with him. But we should make it clear that, insofar as there's any 'business model' here, that's the real business model.

Coulton drops a lot of names that are arguably as famous or more famous than his, but the trick works for people less famous, too. My best example: Lojo Russo, who started out playing for "hippies at ren faires" (to borrow Coulton's phrase), and whose closest brush with fame is probably being turned down for the Minneapolis Lilith Fair in 2010 despite winning the fan vote.

You don't even have to restrict yourself to music: there are any number of authors, both of fiction and non-fiction, who've cultivated small yet devoted fan-bases and seem to be able to earn a living catering to those fan-bases. Supernatural teen romance is the hot topic of the day, but it works in sports as well, where Rob Neyer turned a gig as Bill James's research assistant into book deals and a long-running engagement as one of ESPN's best commentors. Heck, for that matter we could even mention my personal nemesis, Aaron Gleeman.

So the business model works even if it doesn't make you internet-famous. Or, well, it works for some.

The thing this reminded me of, and the main reason it got me thinking, was an internet argument from a couple of months back. Coulton himself is saying that the business model works, but he's not advocating that everybody go ahead and try it. The argument started when somebody did.

Justin Vincent, a self-described 'solopreneur', posted an essay on his own blog called "Entreporn, The Fallacy That Wastes Your Life". He's reacting to a venture capitalist referring to so-called 'lifestyle' businesses as "dipshit companies", which is to say, the venture capitalist is uninterested in investing in such businesses. However, in reacting to the unnamed VC's derision, Vincent swings too far into hyperbole:

The absolute truth is that each and every one of us can build a business that can support us. We don’t need to build a million dollar business to survive. We just need a regular paycheck. Just like the paycheck that we already get working for someone else, except it’s a paycheck we pay ourselves.

If you build a micro business it means you’re your own boss, you make your own rules, you live life on your own terms.

If you genuinely have the spirit of an entrepreneur inside of you, it’s perfectly possible to build a $10k/month webapp business that can set you free.

But even better, once you have the knowledge that comes along with building a succesful (sic) $10k/month business, you also possess the exact same knowledge that it takes to build a $100k/month business.

Somebody decided to call bullshit on this idea:

As pg points out, the ideas that led to the businesses that have formed the infrastructure that enables web lifestyle businesses could not have, themselves, been lifestyle businesses. Someone has to think big, take risks, and deploy significant capital in the interest of a dramatically better world. If you don't want to be that person, great, but don't tell the risk-takers that they're "wasting their lives". Would you say the same to scientists who take big risks? Artists?

Boil it down, and the message is simply this: no, not everybody can succeed doing what you're talking about.

The specific avenue of attack chosen was to point out that somebody has to run a 'non-lifestyle' business to allow the folks who want to run 'lifestyle' business to have things like phone service and commercial-class internet connectivity. He could just as easily made a different point, in defense of the inevitable attack against his argument by someone who develops a web calendaring/time-tracking app, by pointing out that there are plenty of other online time-tracking tools out there. Plus there are plenty of OS-specific or hybrid-OS/web time-tracking and project management software packages out there.

One web calendaring app or geeky folk-rock musician is interesting, two is even more interesting, and three can make a suite or a super-concert. Twenty, though? Fifty? Two hundred? At some point you're going to find the population self-organizing on a bell curve, and there's no guarantee that you're not going to find yourself either in the bulgy middle or at the stinky tail end.

But most cringingly, though, is that guys like Vincent and other 'bootstrappers' seem to believe that you can not only make this a working business model, but do so in a small timespan, along the lines of a three-to-five year business plan.

At first glance, looking at Coulton's career, you might actually buy into this, since it's been just over five years since that famous Slashdotting (of Coulton's song "Code Monkey"). Then consider that Coulton's first studio album actually came out in 2003, and that Coulton himself likely honed his craft in any number of unknown, anonymous exhibitions between that date and his Yale college days in the early 1990s.

There are almost certainly still fields where a dedicated practitioner, after years of seasoning, can stumble across a moment of greatness and ride it to, if not fame and fortune, then enough of each to live on. But I wouldn't bet on being able to follow in Jonathan Coulton's footsteps.

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