The Folly of Educational Entreprenuership

There is perhaps no topic I am presently more qualified to write or speak on than this.

As a bright and energetic youth, I found the doldrums of the educational system to be stifling and frustratingly indirect. It seemed to me senseless that we pupils ought to spend so much time reviewing information that was ultimately not obtained for any particular purpose, that so much time was spent learning essentially extraneous material. Now, older and barely wiser, I might say that one can’t judge the value of information before one intimately knows the connection said information has with practical reality, that practicality only reveals itself once a certain degree of deeper understanding is reached. Nonetheless, the inability (that I perceived, anyhow) of the American educational system to detail the practical applicability of information taught, every step of the way, was something that drove me to join several collegiate entrepreneurship groups, to which I dedicated much time over my four years at university.

Immediately I was intoxicated with the general spirit of ambition, with the idea that the future held near limitless potential for those who dedicated themselves to building it. Finally, I thought, a group of people who sought advancement in the same manner as myself.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before dissecting the flaws in the activities I participated in, let’s see if I can relay my experiences with anything resembling unbiased clarity.

Initially split across several slightly differing groups, my alma mater’s entrepreneurship scene consolidated quite a bit once I approached graduation. I joined up right at the beginning, one of a a dozen or so bright-eyed wannabe big-shots interested in climbing what we thought was an unconventional path to the top. The early days were filled with experienced and knowledgeable guest speakers (though for some that description is charitable), feverish planning out of our group goals, and the kind of passionate conversations that can only be had when aspirations outstrip cynicism. In the beginning, as is so often the case, the possibilities seemed limitless.

The first major bump in the road our nascent community experienced was one borne out of ego. I’m sad to admit that my own ego was one of the several that contributed to these early rifts, though in retrospect it taught a lesson best learned early, when the stakes are relatively low. As one with a bit more wisdom could have likely predicted, when you gather a bunch of adult/child hybrids who all suffer from the hubris required to think they’re destined to be the masters of their own destinies, discord and factionalism are sure to follow. Rather than focus on what could truly be done to facilitate student entrepreneurship, the self-appointed “top dogs” of this little corner of our college began to bicker over differences in vision, attack each other in an attempt to achieve primacy, and posture in order to appear more “powerful” to the few dozen people paying attention. To anyone who’d actually accomplished anything in life, we’d have surely looked like fools.

The big lesson from this chapter was build first, structure later. By concerning ourselves with irrelevances like social standing, we virtually abandoned (for a time) the actual goals we’d so excitedly established in our first semester in operation. Particularly in entrepreneurship, which is supposed to be driven by talented people who know what they’re doing “doing the shit” out of whatever they do, this politicking serves as nothing but a drain and should be immediately excised whenever it rears its ugly head. When there is something of value at stake, politicking is likely an inevitability, as it is an easier path to accessing that value than working to build it yourself. But as previously stated, such action is anathema to true entrepreneurs.

The turmoil of this time caused some internal rifts, and sadly some people chose to step away from the community as a result. But overall we kept on growing. We continued to put together interesting speaker events, developed a series of pitch competitions culminating in a partnership with an existing competition that granted some serious startup capital for the winners, networked with local entrepreneurship groups that featured actual honest-to-goodness revenue generating businesses, and more. We partnered up with the school’s tech scene, eventually working in a startup-focused angle to the rapidly-growing student-run hackathon. In short, we got some shit done.

Throughout the course of this experience, I met several venture capitalists, successful entrepreneurs, founders of incubators and accelerator programs, basically an entire network of Silicon Valley wannabes who were largely impressive in their presentation. But on the student side, things were a bit more bleak. For every skilled individual who maybe had a chance at actually growing a business, there were probably 40 or 50 chuckleheads who had no idea what they were doing aside from talking like a TED presenter. Entrepreneurship, it seemed, was a beacon for charlatans and pretenders of every stripe.

And here came the second, and probably most important, lesson. Inexperienced kids should not try to be entrepreneurs. 

Obviously, there are rare outliers to this general rule. But in the age of Zuck and Evan Spiegel, in the era wherein one noteworthy VC said something to the effect of being a sucker for any Ivy League kid in a zip-up hoodie, its clear that the sector of the economy concerned with generating value out of whole cloth is and long has overly fetishized youth. This is not and original or even a new insight. It’s extremely well-documented. But when you’re on the inside of all of this SV worship culture, the criticism that seems so obvious to the world outside is so damn easy to shrug off. This is not to say that people around my age shouldn’t pursue self-driven activity, far from it. But it should be a widespread cultural value that young people still have a lot to learn, and encouraging said youth to try their hand at taking other people’s money to build something that other people (who are often more experienced) will come to depend on for their livelihood is just insane. What 22 year old do you know that you truly believe would be a responsible shepherd for 100 skilled people? What about even ten?

See, as I met people who’d actually been there and done that, once I realized that most people who got anywhere organically did so after a lifetime of trials and tribulations, once I saw for myself the depth of knowledge and wisdom that experience and experience alone teaches, the blinders started to come off. I started noticing how many of my peers would come up with ideas as simple and trite as “Tinder for X” or “Uber for Y” or “a new Craigslist.” I noticed how this culture, which drew me in because it made me feel like I could zoom to the top and be important and powerful, was doing the same to many others who also had no business aspiring to such heights just yet. I noticed how that very culture made those who most needed to shut up and listen way less likely to do so.

True, most people of any wits can tell a faker pretty quickly. But the messed up thing is that, within that cult-like atmosphere of trying to transform our corner of America into San Francisco, the fakers who were the best at talking real pretty would sneak right by. They’d pull actual investment. Real money was afforded to people who I knew damn well had no business running a business, people who served not some grand vision but their own self-aggrandizement. Meanwhile, in the nearby city that had fallen into a state of disrepair following the flight of manufacturing to the Southern and Eastern Hemispheres, people with decades of experience were struggling to string together a few grand to create real jobs for people who really needed it. It just wasn’t right.

Now, to be certain, not everyone in our community was a scam artist in the making. I have great respect and admiration for most of the people I got to know, and many of them have since gone on to start careers far more impressive than my own. But I’d like to think, to a certain extent, they came to the same realization I did. I mean, how can you now read about the tale  of Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes and come to the conclusion that this fetishization of the great young genius, the radical mastermind pulling us all into a new age, is an archetype that leaves the economic sector with the most potential for creating growth hopelessly hobbled, forever vulnerable to falling sway to a good story and honeyed words?

It seems in recent years that the fervor that gripped so many from 2008-2016 has cooled some, that the average person not plugged in to all of that madness has seen the rampant chicanery for what it is. But perhaps that, like the blind optimism that leads so many into the clutches of that aforementioned madness, is just wishful thinking.

Intentional Communities Minus Marx

Back in college, as often happens when one is optimism rich and experience short, I had a wild idea. Dissatisfied with the disjointed lifestyle of class, work, extracurricular activities, job searching, internships, and so on, I dreamed up and alternative that I saw as a way to simplify and streamline life. I called this idea a “commupany,” which of course is a witty portmanteau of company and community. The idea was pretty simple: a place wherein everyone seeking to live and work there would buy in, not just to live in a nice neighborhood, but to live a life built upon communally shared interests, to mutually craft a lifestyle and livelihood that never asked the two to be at odds with one another. Kind of like Bioshock’s Rapture, but on land probably.

This concept, as conceived in the Platonic realm of imaginationland, would alleviate many problems that face us as the 21st century rages on. Say you’re a biologist whose job as a lab tech means you save nothing once you account for rent at your Boston closet, payments on your six figure student loan debt, and all the delightful nickel-and-diming that permeates across all of modern life. Maybe there’s, say, a thousand other fine fellows in a similar predicament. Why not instead found a commupany in, say, Wyoming, where at the time of writing there exists a 40 acre plot for less than $60k? Upon that land, these erstwhile biologists, with the assistance of a company that would build the housing and infrastructure and help secure the necessary capital by providing loans for what could not be afforded up front, could build something of their own. Paying off these loans would mean owning a piece of this community, and since it’s a theoretical community of biologists, one would imagine that they’d use much of that capital to construct a lab fitted with tools needed to pursue their life’s work (from which they’d somehow derive a livelihood). At the shared eating and living spaces, residents would talk excitedly about their work, freed from many of the inanities that exist when surrounded by those who do not share your passions. These spontaneous interactions would in turn spur creativity and zeal when approaching work, thereby increasing the value of the output of the commupany — in theory.

Now, as it turns out, my brilliant idea wasn’t exactly original. There exist numerous precedents to a market-driven commune of some shared purpose. Though the prototypical commune is a sort of socialist utopia of hierarchy elimination and some degree of market non-participation, both history and modernity provide examples which break that mold.

One of the most intriguing modern examples is the so-called “seasteading” movement, pioneered by an organization known as The Seasteading Institute. This group of self-described “pragmatic idealists,” led by famed libertarian economist Milton Friedman’s grandson, has set out to accomplish the audacious goal of building autonomous, innovation-driven floating cities, refuges from plagues like war and excessively burdensome government regulation. Since their 2008 founding, they’ve attracted the attention of Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel, who to date has donated nearly $2 million to their cause, as well as publications like the Daily Mail and BBC. The’re promising a “fresh start on a floating community by 2020,” most likely located somewhere in French Polynesia (though the archipelago nation has threatened to pull out of the deal in recent months). Naysayers of this vision abound, and certainly such a bold goal carries an extremely high risk of failure, but kudos to the good folks at TSI for dreaming big.

In the event that seasteading actually does happen, the odds are that it will be prohibitively expensive for everyone save for the unbelievably wealthy and the lucky few who they choose to sponsor. Its an idea that represents the excess and grandeur of Silicon Valley in such a way that almost rings as parody. Land-based purposeful community is something much more tenable for the everyman, and these we have plentiful examples of. As those who have read up on this topic will already know, most of take the form of religious communes, green living spaces, and self-sustaining farm villages.

An intentional community that somewhat breaks that aforementioned mold is the famous Danish anarchist commune known as Freetown Christiana. In the early 1970’s, a group of Danish hippies led by one Jacob Ludvigsen occupied what had formerly been a collection of army barracks and ramparts, declaring it “the land of the settlers.” Their original mission statement, as provided by the great academic resource Wikipedia, read as follows:

The objective of Christiania is to create a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible over the wellbeing of the entire community. Our society is to be economically self-sustaining and, as such, our aspiration is to be steadfast in our conviction that psychological and physical destitution can be averted.

The settlement, or, depending on your point of view, unlawful occupation, has developed a unique set of rules with which it “governs” itself, forbidding most weaponry, hard drugs, thievery, gang apparel, and cars. Marijuana is sold openly at street vendors, and recreational activities like theater, yoga, and meditation are frequently practiced. Unsurprisingly, the Danish government has taken some issue with this settlement, and in 2007, a ten year plan was instituted to peacefully reintegrate the hippie utopia back into mainstream Danish society.

By and large, the rest of the places known as intentional communities are either some take on the hippie commune or an all-encompassing religious sect. Famous examples include Twin Oaks, a 100 person farm that furnishes its residents with basic needs in exchange for 42 hours of weekly work, deriving most of its income from selling hammocks and tofu; the Federation of Damanhur, a neo-pagan community some 800 strong renowned for its extensive network of underground temples; the erstwhile town of Rajneeshpuram, about which the Netflix docuseries Wild Wild Country can inform you about in great detail, and is likely the most impressive example of intentional community yet developed (sadly it was derailed due to propagating the largest bioterror attack in US history); and many more of a similarly New Age and ruggedly communalistic bent.

While much can be gleaned from studying the more typical communes currently in existence, there is still a wide gulf between the rejection of capitalistic modernity that they seem to universally be built on and the excessive grandiosity of the admittedly magnificent seasteading project. Its possible that there simply exists a natural divide of ideals — if one wishes for professional success and affordable living, it does seem much simpler to try to make such a life for oneself within the confines of traditional society.

But despite this, a market for my old “commupany” idea may yet exist. It’s not written in stone that intentional communities need to be socialist utopia projects. It’d be a hard sell to get an aspiring professional to move to a new place in the middle of nowhere rather than the next hot city, but as they say in Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come.

The key to accomplishing such a project would be satisfying the simple formula of minimizing costs and maximizing utility. While still in its infancy, the concept of 3D printing housing has been chugging right along in recent years, and has the potential to contribute greatly to such a concept. ICON is a noteworthy U.S.-based company working on this very technology, and aims to be ready to print houses in America by 2019. They claim that their houses will be single-story dwellings of up to 800 square feet, that they will be buildable in less than a day, and that the cost of building them will be roughly $4,000. Whether they can actually execute on these goals will be revealed in time, but anything close to that will seriously undercut the cost of hiring a crew to build a set of traditional homes. By minimizing costs where they can be minimized, a theoretical commupany could both market to a wider wealth demographic and have more capital available to invest in the productive capacities that would be most necessary in making a non-farming, market-based work commune successful.

The combination of cheap land in nowheresville, cheap housing built quickly by machines, and renewable energy with no need to be connected to a grid add up to serious potential in my potentially seriously misguided mind. This kind of living situation wouldn’t be for everyone, but it could provide a lot of value for people who work in fields that are highly time intensive (say independent videogame development), require some degree of upfront capital investment (scientific exploration or building things), or tend to attract people afflicted with a serious case of monomania (artists, people of either of the aforementioned fields, etc.) If there exists something in the world already that is closer to this vision than anything already described, do let me know via comment or email. If this concept is completely brainless and I’m overlooking some critical detail that makes the whole thing fall apart, do let me know via comment or email. If this unpolished idea is something you find remotely exciting or attractive, DLMKVCOE.

What is “The Thinking Man”?

Good question. Is “The Thinking Man” a meeting ground for the modern intellectual, a sort of online 21st century Junto if you will? Is it a collection of pontifications from an overly self-important twenty-something with too much time on his hands? Is it something I spent $48 on in order to convince myself that I’m not destined for a life as a hybrid construction worker and Uber driver?

The answer to this question is yet unknown, even to yours truly. In truth, I waste tons of time reading things of no immediate value to me and annoying my girlfriend by monologuing about the useless facts I’ve catalogued, and so have decided upon this outlet as a worthy substitute for that very cycle of behavior. It may be a fool’s errand, and to be frank I’ve never cared for errands, but here we are.

On this site, I plan to discuss the issues of the day, notable figures and happenings of yesteryear, and generally bloviate on topics of interest. Hopefully, I manage to produce something interesting or insightful, and maybe even get someone to read it. For now, this “stream of consciousness” intro will serve to break the seal (so to speak), thus entering me into the storied realm of internet bloggers. I promise it’ll be the most devoid of actual information of anything I write.

Thanks for stopping by. I’ll be back with something of substance — Scout’s Honor.