Making Edgeryders into a social enterprise means closing successfully two very different deals at the same time. One – the client-side deal – entails making a convincing case that we, the Edgeryders community, have the means of harvesting and conveying in a unique way valuable knowledge. You can find it here; based on the interest we generated in the last few months, I think it is not too unrealistic.
The other deal is the one I and others have been thinking about hardest in the latest couple of weeks: let’s call it the community-side deal. It entails making a convincing case that we, as individuals, would benefit from joining the Edgeryders community (or staying, for those already involved) revenue-raising social enterprise. Internet culture, as we know, is vulnerable to exploitative types that encourage you to “express yourselves”, then sequester your input and use it to get rich (Huffington Post, anybody?). In what follows I try to outline what I consider to be a fair and realistic deal which is advantageous to all.
1. Design Principles
The structure of Edgeryders-the-social enterprise would be characterized by:
- Multiplicity. We are a very diverse community. This is critical: almost anything we have achieved rests on that diversity, so the social contract needs to preserve and enhance it. We need to build different incentives to appeal to different people.
- Openness. It is essential that we stay wide open to an influx of new people, with their insights and skills. This means building a deal that works for people that we have not yet met. It also means that Edgeryders can never be a membership-based organization. The minute you draw a line and say “Here, we are on this side, the outside world is on that side”, the community begins to asphyxiate and die.
- Self-selection. Individuals should be able to choose their own role, as long as this does not limit the autonomy of others.
- Mobility. People should be able to move as effortlessly as possible from one role to another.
- No veto power. The focus of any deal should be to empower and encourage each one of us to do stuff. Should Edgeryders become something that can prevent you from doing stuff… I guess no one would be interested (certainly not I). Remember the mantra: who does the work calls the shots. No one gets to sit on the sidelines and tell people not to do stuff. If you want to make it better, get involved!
With those design principles in mind, I am seeing the following structure. It is layered, like an onion.
- A (tiny) incorporated kernel. This subsystem is for “keeping the lights on”: running and energizing the online community and finding the resources to put together one \#LOTE conference a year for all of us to get together. Since it needs to generate revenue, this part must be able to find and pitch clients that will pay in return from our advice. People in the kernel need to do the hard work of bringing a social startup to financial viability; they should aim at making Edgeryders their day job.
- An open layer of operatives. These are people that see value in enlisting the help of the Edgeryders community (as well as the Edgeryders name, which, at least in the space I am in, turns out to have a little value – it appears we are cool!) for something they are working on or they wish to work on the future.
- A host of domain experts. These are the repositories of living knowledge of Edgeryders, ready to come online if the project is right. We have people that hack almost anything: urban agriculture, defense policy, pandemics, open data, social currencies, urban regeneration, you name it. Even more importantly, we have reached the critical mass where one of us is one handshake away from world class, cutting edge experts on pretty much anything. These people are too busy (and sometimes too senior) to work in Edgeryders – yet they made a tremendous difference in reaching out to a broad, diverse range of communities of practice, thereby driving our initial successes. It is important to give them some reason to hang around the community - and occasionally contribute to the debate – even when they are not on the payroll.
- An outer layer, hanging out on the website and occasionally contributing to the online discussion. I imagine this would be a mixed bag of newcomers, formerly active people that are drifting off, passers-by. They reach the website as a result of engagement and community management efforts; maybe they follow a link from Twitter, and are provoked into a response. This is mainly a recruiting and self-recruiting ground, a vantage point where people can get a front seat to the community and decide whether to engage or re-engage. Experience from Edgeryders 1 shows that it only takes a successful post to establish oneself as respected member of the community – so the outer layer acts as an effective springboard to the inner ones.
The first two layers are the people that generate revenue, and drive Edgeryders as a social enterprise. The kernel focuses on keeping the community going, and this is critical because without the community none of this can happen. The operatives focus on projects, and the projects will be as diverse as they themselves are. The two outer layers provide content and discussion; the domain experts also act as relays to specialized communities that we might need to reach out to. The kernel people work for Edgeryders. Everyone else does not, but is eligible for packets of paid work. Critically, everyone in all layers donates a little bit of time too – hopefully that’s not too bad, because they get to interact with smart people and the kernel makes LOTE events happen for them. Also critically, we build in ways for layers to interact: for example, recruiting the board by picking some Edgeryders registered users at random. Everyone gets a chance to serve in the board.
3. Team and Advisory Board
This is not theoretical anymore, people. It’s been discussed for months. Let me proudly present the great people that have taken it upon themselves to kickstart Edgeryders-the-social-enterprise:
The kernel consists initially of the people that have put in the legwork (and, in some cases, their own money) into spinning off Edgeryders from the Council of Europe.
- @nadia in the lead and as main salesperson
- @noemi as head of community
- @matthias as CTO
- @arthurd as “the money guy” CFO
- @alberto (myself) as research director
That makes for a nice, diverse (five people from five countries!), cutting-edge team, with strong continuity with Edgeryders-the-CoE-project. The kernel has access to a board of non-executive directors recruited among the community members who have been influential on the debate. The board should have a lot of independence (for example, recruiting its own members, with one member drawn at random from the registered users of Edgeryders – look for the “Would you accept to serve on the board?” button in your user profile). We are already in discussion with: Eric Osiakwan and our very own >@hexayurt.
4. So, who makes decisions?
You do. That is, if you are prepared to do the work. It works like this: you can kickstart an Edgeryders project by positioning yourself as what I above called an operative. And anybody can be an operative – this is why that layer is open. As an operative, you can mobilize the community towards your project even if you are not part of the incorporated kernel: you will be collaborating with it. I am not sure how to frame the legal status of the cooperation, but from an operational point of view this should follow three rules.
- You don’t need anyone’s permission to start a project. Anybody can put on and Edgeryders hat, provided they subscribe to the community’s core values. There is little danger of abuse, because, if someone starts a project that conflicts with the Edgeryders broad worldview (“let’s advise Big Bad Evil Corporate on how to make even more money reducing young innovators to brainless zombies!”), the community will simply ignore it, and the project will fail. For Edgeryders to work its magic, anything we attempt simply must be beneficial! No reputation damage either: the fact that an evil Edgeryders project failed will only reinforce our reputation. Distributed quality control, yay!
- If you bring in a project, you have to lead it. This means you have to decide on how resources are allocated, choosing people you put on the payroll, prioritizing goals etc.
- You have to give back to the community. Need a domain expert? Try to hire it from the community. Organizing a conference? Try to get some of the speakers invited from the community. This is in your best interest too – some of the smartest people I know are in Edgeryders. You can find world-class expertise on so many things in here! No brainer. Also, you’ll be using community resources (online platform, LOTE events etc.) which are maintained by the kernel, so you’ll need to contribute towards those.
Operatives don’t work for Edgeryders: rather, Edgeryders works for them. Each of them gets to legitimately speak for the community and make the calls within the project he or she is leading. People in the kernel can initiate projects too. In fact, they must – they need to generate revenue to maintain community resources!
5. What happens if things go very wrong?
Openness is our best safeguard against opportunistic or misguided behavior. People vote with their feet: if the kernel abuses the community, the community will evaporate, and the kernel will be left without a viable company. They definitely don’t want that! But what happens if they don’t notice something is wrong? Or if there is a major disagreement? If somebody else does something stupid that threatens your project as it unfolds? Our second safeguard is the board of directors. We are giving it statutory powers to overrun management and act as benevolent dictator when it perceives a threat.
Let me finish with a couple of use cases.
- Consultancy. Swedish think tank Global Challenge has undertaken a project on “youth and non-work in the Baltic Sea Region” and was having trouble reaching out to authentic voices in the area. Their project manager mentioned this to Ola, who connected her to Nadia. As a result of that conversation, the Edgeryders Mission: Baltic was born. The project was small, with a small budget, but it did result in paid gigs for a few people, a workshop in Stockholm all expenses paid, and a bit of free money to be allocated for a get-together as a reward to the community.
- Funding applications. As former Edgeryders-as-a-Council-of-Europe-project directors, Nadia and I received several requests for Edgeryders to be a partner in consortia applying for European research funding. You can see the reasoning: open, spanning the whole continent and all walks of life, featuring a solid methodology and even cool quantitative stuff like network analysis of the conversation, we are a valuable addition to any partnership. Of course, to be a partner you have to be incorporated… so she had to turn all of those offers down. In one of them, however, Edgeryders is virtually present: not as a partner, but as a community. The project director has committed to investing resources in helping Edgeryders stay online (for example with one or more \#LOTE-type event, and hiring people from the community) if the project is awarded the grant it applied for. You could reach out to your city council (many have small unites dedicated to applying for European funding) or your favorite NGO, work out some cool societal hack that would make the life of people on the edge a little fairer, and offer Edgeryders as a truly European partner!
- Events. Anthony Zacharzewsky, Kat Borlongan and I came up with the idea of organizing a Eurohackathon in the run up to the European elections in 2014. The idea is to use ICT to promote a political debate and voting behavior that takes on ©board the European scale – very important, since it is clear to all that states do not have the choice of running a global crisis from within the country. We approached the European Parliament and asked them: would you like to do something like that together? They said sure, come along and let’s discuss. Meanwhile Rysiek and Felipe Gonzalez also got involved. That conversation is ongoing, but if it does result in go we think a Europarl-Edgeryders partnership would carry the right narrative: it’s European, it’s civic hackers and we are all in it.
What do you think?
Special thanks to @dougald.