Sunday, March 25, 2007

Subversive Business

by Skald

Business has been co-opting and subverting noble causes for decades (well, centuries). This is their preferred method for destroying any movement that challenges them. The environmental movement is a perfect example-- big business simply runs countless "green" ads and creates scores of fake "environmental groups" (which are actually fronts for polluting industries) in order to confuse and befuddle the public. They also keep the media firmly focused on trivia, and use their media power to demonize and marginalize activists and concerned citizens. They buy "scientists" and government officials... and even environmental activists.

The 60s counter-culture is another great example. Big business has turned that rebellion into a lifestyle industry of cool. All the counter-culture trappings of that era now serve to sell Gap jeans and Cadillacs.

As I embark on my own "business" project (I still hate using that word.. need to create a new one), I ask myself-- can the tables be turned? Can we co-opt business and use it for radical, subversive ends?

The first attempts at such a thing were probably Ben & Jerry's and The Body Shop. These two companies, especially Ben & Jerry's, tried to weave a social-progressive fabric into their business (ignoring the very ill health effects of their products :). In fact, social change was part of their business mission. I remember how impressed and inspired I was when I first read Ben & Jerry's book.

Years later, I was extremely disappointed to hear they had sold out to a soulless mega-corporation-- swallowed up by the beast. Similarly, The Body Shop was eaten by Loreal-- an evil company that tests on animals. It seemed that subversive-business was an impossible oxymoron.

But maybe not. On a smaller scale, there are projects that are more progressive.

However, I don't know of any that I'd call truly radical. I hope to change that. Since my website is basically an information business, I plan to incorporate "subversive" information into its core. What does that mean? It means that when I choose articles to teach English, I won't just be using mainstream media pap. I'll also use the site as a way of exposing members to the likes of Noam Chomsky, Hakim Bey, Ralph Nader, Thoreau, and the like.

The nuts and bolts of teaching English are only a small part of the site. The content is equally (more!) important. My members aren't just interested in grammar and vocabulary-- they want engaging, interesting, thought-provoking content.

So, my little project has a dual mission. One is to teach English in the most natural and effortless way possible. The second is to build an international community of progressives and subversives-- who will use English as their medium of communication.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Making a Website

by Skald

If you are a programmer, you can make your own site quite easily. Another option is to spend a good chunk of money for a professional to create one for you.

However, that's an expensive option. For aspiring micro-preneurs, I recommend a simpler and cheaper route-- go with a pre-packaged template service-- these include, Yahoo Stores, Ebay Stores, etc.

No, your site won't look "professional" necessarily. However, in the beginning your main goal is to experiment. Most likely, you won't know what the hell you are doing. I certainly didn't... and honestly, I'm still mostly clueless. To start your own e-business cheaply, you've got to have the luxury of having plenty of time for trial and error. That means you probably can't afford to spend chunks of money for web hosting and web design. Save that for when you've figured it all out and already have a successful site.

Another key point to consider, when starting out, is how you can become more extreme. As a low-budget bootstrapping cyber-hobo, there's no way in hell you can compete directly with any normal company that has a bigger budget. As a tiny cyber-hobo, you've got to be unique.

How can you do this? Seth Godin recommends "going for the edges". By this he means, identify your unique qualities or strengths.... then push them to the farthest extreme. For example, I cannot compete with the giant English chain schools & their websites directly. Nor can I compete with huge corporate textbook publishers.

But one of my unique qualities and strengths is that I use only natural approaches that do not teach the analysis of grammar. Lucky for me, all the mega-schools and corporate publishers focus on precisely that-- grammar analysis. So one of my edges is "real English without grammar study". I NEVER use textbook-like activities on my site, I NEVER use contrived conversations on my site.... I use only authentic English--- meaning real conversations (unscripted), real movies (made for native speakers), real letters (not contrived by a textbook publisher), real articles (made for native speakers), etc... I'm always searching for more ways to push this edge... to provide more authentic, real-life, uncontrived English-- and natural ways to make it understandable for my website members.

Finally, one more point. The "edges" you choose must be in accord with your passions. The one thing you can't afford to be as a tiny cyber-hobo is boring. You've got to invest your heart and soul. As an English teacher, I'm passionate about this style of teaching. I deplore the traditional ways of teaching the language-- especially grammar-analysis. I detest the structure of the English as a Foreign Language industry. I detest the textbooks and the publishers.

I'm not just "interested in" this topic-- I'm a passionate crusader for it. In fact, I was fired from my last job in Thailand because of my defiance of traditional teaching methods and my refusal to use them.

You've got to find that same passion & crusading mentality and tie it to your little enterprise. If you want to sell your own jewelry, don't try to sell boring stuff that is just like what everyone else is selling. Sell YOUR art--- and make it completely and truly YOURS. Never, never, never think like a business person and ponder, "What do people want to buy... what could I do or make that would reach a big market".

Instead, think, "What am I crazy about, What do I love doing, and What can I do in a great and unique way". Find it, do it... then launch your website and seek out the other crazy people in the world who are on the same wavelength as you are. Leave the bland mass market to Wal-Mart and their evil brethren. Create something with heart.

Don't worry, if you are patient and persistent... you'll find plenty. For my part, I knew that the vast majority of English students want grammar-- and think its absolutely necessary. They are wrong, but I'll never convince most of them. Luckily, I don't need to. Because with the internet, I can slowly connect with the tiny percentage (but still huge number) of people who are looking for a teacher like me.

Trust yourself. Trust your passions and your genius. Accept your fears.

Then launch that site. That's when the real planning, adjustment, and experimenting begin.

Monday, March 12, 2007

First Steps

by Skald

So, how do you get started as a cyber-bedouin? What are the first steps to starting your own web micro-business?

I recommend a slow, easy, and super-cheap start. In fact, the first steps aren't really about "business" at all.

The very first step is to identify your passions. Not interests. Not skills. PASSIONS. What are you crazy about. What do you love to do, learn, and teach? You probably have many.

I certainly do. I love travel. I love living simply. I love writing. I love SCUBA diving. I love teaching English. I love walking. I love hiking.

Once you've identified your passions, try to pick one or two that you might actually want to do as a business. Ideally, this is something you can be GREAT at. Not good. Not very good. GREAT.

After thinking a long time, I realized writing and teaching English were the two passions I had the greatest potential for.

That's when I moved to step two-- Start a blog (or blogs) about your great passions. I started Hobopoet, originally, as a way to practice writing and a means to record my experiments with living a freer and simpler life. Later, when I realized I truly loved teaching English, I started "Effortless Language Acquisition" to record my thoughts.

For a couple of years, both of these blogs evolved. I slowly picked up readers. But more importantly, I slowly evolved my ideas. In time, I realized that English teaching was a better fit for starting my own business... while Hobopoet and writing were things I preferred to do for my own enjoyment only.

Even after this realization, it took time to land on the idea of an English teaching website. I first thought of opening my own school somewhere... but finally realized that the web was the way to go.

Thats when I moved to step three-- building an audience. I began to take the English teaching blog more seriously. I also started a podcast called "Effortless English". It grew steadily.

Most importantly, I created an "opt-in" subscription service. I created an email group using Google Groups... then put a link on the blog & podcast page.... targeted to students. English learners could add their email address to my Group and get periodic English learning tips. Later, I transferred this to a GoDaddy email-list account, and formalized it a bit more as "The Effortless English Newsletter". I still have it.

Through the newsletter, I continued (and continue to this day) to evolve my ideas on teaching and learning English. I communicate with English learners. I get feedback. I learn. I develop and evolve. I build a dialog with my subscribers. Eventually my skills, audience, and ideas evolved to the point where I was ready to launch my web business-- The Effortless English Club....

This, then, are the beginning steps for starting a web business:

1. Identify your Passions.
2. Pick the ones you can be Great at. Study, learn, practice.
3. Start blogs (or podcasts) on these topics. Write. Develop your ideas. Keep learning and improving. Get readers and communicate.
4. Create a Free Email Subscription Service related to your Great Passion-- a newsletter, a Google Group, whatever. Continue to learn, grow, and evolve.
5. Let the Email Subscriptions, and your abilities, grow........

Nuts & Bolts

by Skald

If there are any longtime Hobopoet readers left out there.. they know that this little blog has been on semi-vacation for quite a while.

The reason is simple, I didn't know what to write. For over a year now, I've been in transition from Hobopoet living in Thailand to Cyber-Bedouin living in San Francisco. The Bedouin part only started last October, when I finally launched my English teaching website.

Until then, I was only teaching part time at a school here in the city-- living cheap.. but otherwise doing nothing much of interest. I simply didn't have anything interesting or useful to write.. because I wasn't doing anything interesting.

After starting the website, I knew the cyber-hobopoet (or "bedouin") experiment could be useful and interesting. But, to be honest, I feared it would quickly flop and I'd look like a total idiot for writing about it. Another concern is that when I started the site, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. "Flying blind" is a kind way to put it.

But now I've been at it for about 5 months and have more of a clue. The website hasn't flopped. Quite the contrary, it has slowly grown. Little by little, Im learning. Little by little Im improving.

And now that I have a few months of experience under my belt, I feel I have more to share.

So when I have the time, I'll be posting more to this blog. I'll be focusing on issues related to my current cyber-bedouin experiment.. including the nuts and bolts issues of starting your own web micro-business.


by Skald

On the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle today was this headline:

"Where Neo-Nomads Ideas Percolate"

The story was about the growing number of neo-nomads or "bedouins" in San Francisco. Bedouin doesn't describe just any Hobopoet... it specifically refers to what I often call cyber-hobos. These are people who run their own web based businesses using a laptop, a cell phone, and an internet connection. I'm one of them.

The article also describes the SF coffeehouse culture that is tied to the bedouin movement. The bulk of the cyber-bedouins use coffee shops (with wifi connections) as their office. I certainly do. While I do have a connection in my apartment, I find I quickly get claustrophobic and prefer to be in a coffeehouse where I can people watch. My favorites in SF are Cafe Puccini in North Beach, Quetzal on Polk St. (next to my apartment), and Its a Grind... (also on Polk... in Lower Nob Hill).

The infrastructure of coffeeshops, free wifi, Kinkos, etc. "makes it possible for people to work where they want, when they want, how they want" said Dan Pink, author of "Free Agent Nation".

Pink calls it "Karl Marx's revenge, where individuals own the means of production. And they take the means of production and hop from coffee shop to coffee shop."

I agree. The high-tech Hobopoet revolution has started. And I also agree with Dan Pink's implied conclusion-- the bedouin movement is, at its core, about freedom and autonomy.

Its about financial independence-- owning the means of your own production. Its about doing what you want to do, when you want to do it, how you want to do it. Its about being able to invest your personality, emotions, and values in what you do. And while I've discussed many strategies for doing this, increasingly I see web technology as the most promising way to do this.

Starting a normal small business" requires sizable loans-- even a tiny Mom & Pop corner shop required tens of thousands of dollars (at a minimum) to get going.

But a web business is open to anyone with the patience and persistence to learn and experiment. All you need is a laptop... and enough for a coffee each day at a cafe with free wifi.

As I explore this trajectory, and progress upon it, Im becoming more and more enthusiastic about the possibilities. To be sure, this is not a "get rich quick" scheme, as some seem to think of the internet. In fact, it might not even be a "get rich slow" scheme. But its certainly possible for almost anyone to "make a living" with their own web business (given enough patience, experimentation, and persistence). And thats HUGE.

Why? What's the big deal?

For one, it means for a very tiny financial risk-- anyone can start and own their own business. Furthermore, such a business can be run from anywhere. You can stay on the move,... you can travel the world,... you can work another part or fulltime job while growing the thing for a few years,... you can try absolutely anything you want.

I've never thought that the Hobopoet life was solely about laziness (though I am a proponent of periodic inspired laziness). The whole point is autonomy-- being totally responsible for your own life. The internet makes that easier than it has been in a very long time. And thats exciting.

So to all my fellow disgruntled wage slaves out there, I say-- Start your own web business now. Just start SOMETHING. Wade in and experiment. Keep your foul job for now, if necessary. Dabble and play and experiment with your little website as much or little as you like. But do it. Don't believe what all those business books tell you about having "a business plan" and the like. You don't need one. Develop it as you go.

Just get started, try stuff, see what happens, and your little business will evolve.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Ever So Slowly

Financial independence is coming along, ever so slowly. I'm now happy to report that my website is making enough for me to live, job free, in an inexpensive country (such as Thailand, Cambodia, India, Ecuador, etc.).

However, I've decided to wait a while longer to build the site and be sure it will be a consistent source of independent income. It would be nice if it eventually generated enough for me to be independent even in more expensive countries-- ie. The US, Europe, and Japan... but at least I've hit the first milestone.

What this little experiment has taught me is that the key to being a successful micro-preneur is simply this-- START. I can't tell you how many years I wasted THINKING about starting my own little project. I dreamed. I analyzed. I planned.

I suppose these activities had some psychological value-- helping me overcome doubts, fears, and hesitations.. but thats about it. Beyond that, it was just a lot of wasted time and energy.

The key to becoming financially independent is not a super idea, or a genius plan, or the amazing thing that no one else has ever thought of. The key is to simply start something-- anything. Just start and then adapt. That's all it really takes.

Because before you start, you really don't know what the hell you are doing. You THINK you know what will be necessary. You THINK you can predict the problems and opportunities. You THINK you can plan everything. But you are wrong-- you can't. The only way you learn those things is by starting, trying things, and seeing what happens.

Of course, this works best if you are going the bootstrapper micro-preneur route. If you are taking out a 100,000 dollar loan, its probably more difficult (psychologically and financially) to start without much of a plan. Which is yet another reason not to go this risky and failure-ridden route.

Instead, start with what you have... do something you can afford to do... try SOMETHING... see what happens.... reflect, adapt, innovate... try something else...

There's the "magic secret" to becoming financially independent (which I define as freedom from jobs and bosses).

No business degree or massive loans necessary.