Home officenew technologies are reshaping how customers, workers, and companies interact—and making it much cheaper and easier to be in touch. In his new book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (Penguin), Clay Shirky zeroes in on which tools are best suited for various tasks. Excerpts from a chat with U.S. News:
Shirky recommends wikis for developing a consensus.
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What's the thesis of the book?
One of the underappreciated revolutions that the Internet is bringing about is the ability for groups to communicate together and to do things together. In particular, you get groups doing it who don't have to look or operate like traditional organizations.
What's the best practical advice for getting new groups to function in a business?
One of the first impulses is to get everybody talking to everybody. That wastes people's time. Set up a mailing list. Set up a wiki. The tools to do it are quite simple. See what they discover in talking to one another. It's a really low-cost way of exploring things that matter to your business without having to create complicated additional structures.
What kinds of jobs are these tools best suited for?
Let me run down the tool by the task it's good for.
Sharing. It's the simplest of all. Without a lot of conversation or agreement, I'm going to put stuff up, and you can see it on Flickr or YouTube. You can put stuff up, and I can see it. Tagging was the crucial development. We can now find each other's stuff as a social side effect of sharing.
Conversation. It's hard to beat E-mail lists. People live in their E-mail boxes. [A list] is what you need if you want to increase peripheral vision. It's good for making people aware, roughly, of what each other is doing or to present a standing question like, "How do I do this specific thing?"
Collaboration. For when you actually want to make something, the classic is the wiki. Instead of producing a divergent opinion the way E-mail lists do, it produces a convergent opinion. [Through editing by individuals] the content of a page comes to reflect a kind of state-of-the-meeting consensus. Google Docs is famously a wiki-in-one-page where lots of people can simultaneously edit. People are doing it for spreadsheets as well. If I had to bet on any tool that would make huge progress in the next 12 months, that would be it.
How do these technologies change the way you manage time and people?
You have to make failures informative, so no burying mistakes.
What does that say about larger-scale strategy, like product development?
A classic mistake for businesses trying to take advantage of these new ways of communicating is to announce some big new initiative you'll roll out in nine months. If you announce beforehand what you're going to do, it raises expectations and prevents you from learning as you go.
February 28, 2008
An Office Space of One’s Own for Entrepreneurs
By MARCI ALBOHER
WITHIN a few months of starting In Good Company Consulting, a business to advise female entrepreneurs, Amy Abrams and Adelaide Fives discovered that they shared something with many of their clients. They, too, needed office space that was well located and professional with a place for private meetings. And they wanted to be near like-minded entrepreneurs.
They tried subletting space from another firm. They rented space at the corporate office suites HQ (now the Regus Group) and BevMax Office Centers and visited virtually every flexible and temporary office space in Manhattan. But they were disappointed with what they regarded as the often cold and impersonal qualities of those places, not to mention the shared restrooms that never seemed to be clean enough. “And nothing had the energy and buzz we were looking for,” Ms. Fives said.
So they designed it. And last September, In Good Company Workplaces opened in the Flatiron district of Manhattan with its first 39 members. Their company Web site speaks of “the three essential elements every successful business needs: productive workspace, powerful connections and effective ideas.” By many accounts it is an unusual hybrid: equal parts business incubator, co-working and learning space and members-only networking group.
“They are onto something here,” said Nell Merlino, founder of Count Me In, a nonprofit group that makes small loans to female entrepreneurs. Ms. Merlino, who had never heard of In Good Company, said that the idea made sense in light of the research she had conducted. “Seventy-three percent of women business owners work by themselves, so community is very important.”
Still, Ms. Merlino cautioned women who are considering this kind of move. “An awful lot of women worry about being defined by not having a nice space,” she said. “The focus has got to be about growth, not just ‘I want to go and hang out with other people’ or ‘I need to get out of the house so the kids are not climbing all over the place.’ ”
The company’s menu of offerings reads like a gym membership, with an annual fee and various options based on how many hours of desk and meeting room time the entrepreneur wants to rent each month. All memberships include free Wi-Fi, printing and faxing, a monthly 30-minute consultation with Ms. Abrams or Ms. Fives, free admission to events and seminars and a listing in the member directory. Members can change their plans from month to month. At the moment, the company has 110 members, with 60 percent on a basic plan that costs $300 a year and allows them to rent meeting and desk space à la carte.
The space, which Ms. Adelaide and Ms. Abrams designed, has a loftlike feel and a sleek, minimalist style with white desks, exposed brick walls and a rotating art exhibit featuring women artists with a connection to In Good Company. The common area has a collection of desks that members choose based on what is available on the days they work. Members say that voices are fairly hushed during phone calls, which are generally on cellphones unless someone chooses to use the landline next to the sofa in the back of the room. For more privacy on calls, members can briefly step into an empty meeting room if one is available.
E. B. Moss, the founder of Moss Appeal, a marketing and promotion services company, uses a toll-free number that automatically forwards to her cellphone when she is at In Good Company. Initially, she was concerned that when clients came for meetings, they would have to look for In Good Company rather than her company’s name on the directory. But she has grown comfortable with that. “Transparency is what it’s all about,” she said. “When I first started out, I was protective about letting people know there were no bricks and mortar to me. It fits in with the green division of my company. I like to keep my footprint small.”
Members, who find their way to In Good Company through word of mouth and the women’s groups where the founders have relationships are exuberant in their praise for the arrangement.
“The space is just a dream come true, with beautiful space options, which I utilize happily,” said Emily Wolper, a college and graduate school admissions consultant, who lives in New Jersey where she has a home office. Ms. Wolper books meeting room space for client sessions and uses one of the desks in the open workspace area when she has time in the city between meetings. She also uses Ms. Fives as a business consultant. “As a solo practitioner, I don’t have a staff or a boss to talk about issues that come up, so I have found Adelaide to be an amazing resource.” she said.
Galia Gichon, the founder of Down-to-Earth Finance, a financial advisory company, gravitated to In Good Company when Two Rooms, a workspace on the Upper West Side catering to working mothers, closed. Ms. Gichon was so impressed with the way Ms. Fives and Ms. Abrams operated that she agreed to be on their advisory board. “I was part of two focus groups they did, and they were as professionally done as what Colgate-Palmolive does. As soon as they opened their doors, I said, ‘Sign me up.’ ” Even as a board member, she pays full rates.
Many of the women say that the environment is a tonic against the loneliness that can plague a solo or start-up business. “There is just nothing like it in the city,” said Marissa Lippert, who runs Nourish, a company that offers nutrition and lifestyle counseling. “It’s the best of both worlds — you run your own schedule and company, but you have the benefits of a corporate culture.”
The company gets high marks for its flexibility. Ms. Moss currently uses the highest level of membership, which gives her about 20 hours a week of desk space and 2 hours of meeting room space. But she says she may downgrade to a lower plan when business is slow. Ms. Wolper, whose business fluctuates with the school admissions calendar, also appreciates the ability to change plans during the year.
Though many of the members say they were not specifically searching for an all-female office, some businesses are particularly well suited to it. Krisztina Jenei, a custom dressmaker and seamstress, drapes a curtain over the glass partition and uses the meeting rooms to do fittings with her clients. “It’s just not professional fitting clients in office bathrooms,” she said.
Though men cannot be members, they are welcome in the space as clients or at events. And though initially the partners were courting female backers, the company’s first round of investors were men. In fact, six of the company’s seven individual investors are couples in which the husbands signed on after being introduced to the company by their wives.
The partners say they have found a way to take their business model further than they would have had they retained a pure consulting practice. “Consulting is only as big as the people you have. You scale by hiring more people,” Ms. Abrams said. “We wanted to focus on how to touch more business owners. Also, a lot of women come because there is a problem. Once you’ve solved the problem, you don’t see them again. We wanted to develop something to help in a more ongoing way.”
They said they also wanted to build something that would offer a model of a certain type of entrepreneurial behavior to their target market. “Our plan,” Ms. Abrams said, “is to be much bigger than one space, and to build a bigger business for many years to come.”
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