Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Austin Coworking Scene, Part 2: Conjunctured

As mentioned in a previous post, I have been thinking in terms of attenuated work organization for a while, ever since reading Zuboff and Maxmin's The Support Economy. That book led me to read a lot on the information economy as well as related subjects. Some of them obviously related, such as new economy rhetoric, management theory, and communication technologies. Others were not so obviously related, such as asymmetric warfare, education theory, and lots of postmodernist and amodernist theory.

What I've been reading has led me to believe that the information economy is pushing work organization away from hierarchies and toward recombinant networks in which individuals reach across trade, field, discipline, and organizational boundaries to accomplish specific projects. This change is abetted by newly ubiquitous information technologies and is happening even in established organizations, as I've discussed in the upcoming book Network and in my recent TCQ special issue on distributed work. But it's happening even more quickly in smaller, lighter sectors such as small business-to-business services: think graphic design, web design, advertising campaigns, and consulting. In these sectors, since engagements are quite limited in time and in focus, it's possible for Zuboff and Maxmin's "federations" of contractors and subcontractors to coalesce, accomplish a project, and disperse at the end of the project. Such an organizational structure is quite networked, involving attenuated ties and constant boundary-crossing across fields, trades, disciplines and organizations. The falling costs of portable computers, broadband, and mobile telecommunications have meant that such federations can operate on very low overhead.

Some of the more interesting developments in communication-oriented software have come from these emerging federations. For instance, Basecamp was developed to help 37Signals manage their projects in consultation with clients. Google Docs, as I have argued elsewhere, is ideally suited for this sort of collaboration as well.

So it's not terribly surprising for me to see these federations coalescing and dispersing. What did surprise me when I ran across it a few months ago, and again as I revisited it recently, was Conjunctured. The company didn't appear to be a federation -- too stable -- but it certainly wasn't a hierarchical organization either. Was it something entirely new? A hybrid?

After a while, I did the most obvious thing. I asked. That is, I met separately with two members of Conjunctured to informally talk about the organization.

A caveat here: These meetings were not research, were not conducted via a research methodology, were not passed by a human subjects committee, and should be regarded as citizen journalism rather than research.

May 28: Cesar Torres
Cesar Torres was gracious enough to meet me at the coffee shop for an interview. An energetic 24-year-old, Cesar explained that he had recently graduated from UT with a marketing degree, although he was let in as a computer science major. Throughout college, he freelanced (over Craigslist) as well as interning at Apple. When he graduated, he faced the prospect of working at Apple or at a conventional advertising firm.

But he preferred creative control. He had interned at advertising agencies, and he thinks of them as a "big government" model: lots of overhead, layers between creative worker and customer. But technology replaces a lot of the overhead and infrastructure of the agency model: all the creative needs is a laptop and a mobile phone. So he decided to "flip the model."

Flipping a model as established as the agency model is hard. Conjunctured, he explained, is a moving target. The description on the website right now is a February statement, already a bit out of date. Currently, Conjunctured has two sides:

Agency. Conjunctured started in August 2007 with three others. They had begun working together in Jelly meetings and at Social Media Club. Together, they worked on a model of individual work + collaboration on projects that leverage their unique skills. And whereas a conventional agency takes too big a cut due to infrastructure, Conjunctured allows them to get freelancer wages.

Not only do they supply their own infrastructure (laptops, mobile phones) at low cost, they use free tools. Cesar describes this approach as learning to intertwine, learning to be efficient early adopters. The agency is an exercise in figuring out the value in social media and social connections.

Coworking space. Cesar went to SXSWi to talk to people about this model. Their advice was to get space. In fact, he met Julie Gomoll of LaunchpadCoworking.com, who is starting a coworking cafe with conference rooms. Gomoll's enterprise is high-end, catering to telecommuters at large companies. Space there goes for $15/hr.

Conjunctured decided to take this model and apply it to a more downscale market:
  • Walk-in: $15/day
  • Part-time: 3-4 days/wk $150-200
  • Full-time: 24/7 access, $250-400
So the space theoretically will pay for itself. This aspect of Conjunctured is not-for-profit. At the time of the interview, Conjunctured had made an offer for space 5 blocks east of I-35. They envisioned the coworking space as functioning as
  • incubator
  • recurring revenue
  • but 80%: network, be in environment with other creatives
Ideally, the space functions as an incubator. Cesar envisions a recurring 7-minute period in which everyone focuses on one project to improve it. Once a company outgrows the incubator, they buy a space next door. And the property is strategically placed near light rail. The space is a house, with the mentality being that of a family rather than a corporation.

Currently the agency model is on the back burner. They had a chicken and egg problem:
  • How do you run an agency without space?
  • How do you obtain space without revenue?
So the coworking space is the main focus right now; once it's nailed down, the agency model can take hold.

How do you handle long-term planning, I asked. He feels it will work itself out. Designers and developers naturally go into the coworking model, But he believes that it will also draw project managers. Meanwhile, Conjunctured's founders will work on that level too.

How does Conjunctured bill work, since it is not a company in the traditional sense? Currently, when one of Conjunctured's members is hired, it's as an individual. That individual hires others as consultants and sends them 1099s. That is, they hire each other as subcontractors and they can write each other off as a business expense. Which is to say that in this sense, Conjunctured closely resembles a federation, but more stable in that the relationships are tighter and meant to outlast the projects.

Conjunctured currently has a DBA and is in talks with a lawyer about becoming a LLC. They are not incorporating in near future.

Cesar was also nice enough to give me pointers to the Austin coworking scene, which is more extensive than I had realized.

About a week later, another Conjunctured member, John Erik Metcalfe, sent me a direct message on Twitter, suggesting we meet as well.

June 6: John Erik Metcalfe
It was raining on the morning of June 6, and as I rode the bus toward my appointment with John (in the same coffee shop), he direct-messaged me on Twitter, letting me know he would be a little late -- he had to go back and get his umbrella. That was fine with me, since I was engrossed in a project management text. I settled in the coffee shop, and soon John appeared.

He explained that he saw the Conjunctured model as white blood cells in the bloodstream. When a hostile organism appeared, white blood cells swarm it. Similarly, Conjunctured's coworkers swarm a project. (This, of course, reminds me of the swarming concept applied in asymmetric warfare.)

John's particular focus is the Startup District, the anticipated cluster of companies that will grow from the Conjunctured incubator. And networking -- not on a money level, he explained, but on the level of human engagement.

Conjunctured's processes, he explained, are based on scrum/agile programming. They're incremental. Dusty Reagan (also of Conjunctured and a software developer) brought this orientation to projects.

John was excited because Conjunctured was signing on space that day. The four founders would sign. And although individual people would be working in the coworking space, Conjunctured as a brand/agency would bring in work.

So here's how that works. Coworking people can work on Conjunctured projects up to 20 hours per week. John used the same metaphor that Cesar had used: Conjunctured is "small government," with low overhead and freelance wages that meant workers would be "making what they should." The rest of their time would be spent on their own projects.

The part of an agency that many contractors find uninteresting, he explained, "is client service." Conjunctured handles that part by obtaining clients, chunking out projects, and distributing the chunks to a flat structure of people.

Here's the project management process John described, based on scrum.

1) Conjunctured talks to the client and asks, "What is the project?" They get an explanation, then promise to "put it into our system." Each project is an opt-in project.

2) Conjunctured creates a Google Doc with the project description. It's shared with everyone. Coworkers opt into the project by adding text on the GDoc. If not enough people opt in, Conjunctured declines the project. (It's all about opt-in.) But if there are enough yesses, the project is a go.

(John envisions a Digg-style list for projects: The most popular float to the top. This system would serve to aggregate interest and priority.)

3) Conjunctured then meets with the client, along with appropriate coworkers. They ask questions to create large chunks of the project. For instance, a branding project might be chunked into an identity system, website, etc.

4) Conjunctured then goes back to the group and presents the chunks: "Here's what needs to be done. Check in to do them." Members use the GDocs spreadsheet for tasks and time estimates. One column, "Dusty's gut," is used for developer Dusty Reagan's time estimate; others comment on the estimates to refine them and produce a firmer estimate. (Notice that this functions as a market-type system with free bidding inside the organization.)

5) Based on the breakout, the project lead calculates total length (which is to say, reads the total at the bottom of the spreadsheet). A line for client service is added, automatically estimated as a ratio of the project total.

6) If the client agrees with the estimate, Conjunctured asks the opt-in members to break their chunks into detailed tasks with time estimates. These tasks can be parceled out and managed recursively: the task's owner can manage the individual tasks and get more opt-ins, meaning that someone could work on as little as two hours of the project. Doing this means that parts of the project can be subcontracted and managed at a very low level of granularity; think of it as a federation with subfederations.

It's an intriguing process. However, John pointed out that Conjunctured has done few projects so far with this method. He expects that it will continue to evolve and refine.

What if someone doesn't meet their commitment? John points to the Conjunctured Manifesto, which states that "The community should call out members who aren’t pulling their weight"; members can call someone out at any time and judge them openly within Conjunctured. He also envisions a reputation system. They have implemented an initial version of this reputation system which allows them to give stars to coworkers; eventually, he envisions a thumbs-up or thumbs-down ranking on any project.

This process has some resemblance to project management, but also many differences. John says that Conjunctured expects to work out project management eventually, via a software solution that lets members look at
  • the availability and reputation of available coworkers (a la eBay)
  • the popularity of given projects (a la Digg)
He points to actionitem.com -- being developed by a fellow Austinite -- as one possible way to go.

What does it all mean?
It would be easy to characterize this young, rapidly developing model as a case of idealism overdose. Certainly it faces some key challenges in terms of project management, scaling, stability, and sustainability. However, I see some really interesting things going on here that resonate with the sorts of trends Beniger and Malone have talked about, among others. In certain project- and campaign-oriented, limited-engagement sectors, such as graphic design, advertising, and web development, freelancing and sole proprietorships have thrived; people have gotten used to flexible hours, to working on projects that interest them, to choosing people with whom they would like to collaborate, and to supplying or foraging infrastructure. At the same time, social software has begun to support opt-in collaboration on a broader scale. Federation-like structures such as Conjunctured are an attempt to scale up the freelancing model to preserve these desirable characteristics while providing enough stability and planning structure to support longer engagements.

The details are still being worked out, and I expect the model to evolve considerably over the next year or so as Conjunctured continues to coalesce as an organization. In particular, the freelancing/sole proprietorship model tends to focus on the tactical, reactive level, and Conjunctured will have to focus more on the strategic level as it evolves, in order to maintain a steady stream of clients and a stable identity. One way to handle that would be to shed the ideals and become a traditional agency, but another harder way would be to continue to evolve tools and practices in line with the Manifesto.

In any case, the emerging organization is really interesting, and I expect to keep in contact with them to see how things develop.

5 comments:

jmetcalf27 said...

another helluva writeup.

you really understand what we are working on here and how we want to work. and I'm telling you, you are one of the few. you, kevin, drew and todd all need to chat (you'd better have a free day for that one.)

would you mind if i post snippet of this article/post on my blog? it's so amazing to hear someone retelling what we have been thinking about for so long. and that you are able to link it back to so many other sources. very cool.

thanks again for this post. let's really stay in touch - looking forward to your book(s).

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Sure, feel free to quote and link. I'm glad I was able to get the gist of the conversation. Definitely let's try to set up more conversations soon.

David said...

I'll second John's comment---great writeup Clay! The space is soon to be open, so we're all looking forward to running with the agency side of things now that the space is solidified. Look forward to meeting you sometime soon!

Cesar said...

Whoa, how did I miss this?! I must have had Twitter off. Thanks, Clay.

AMAZING writeup, thanks so much. Like John said, really can't wait for the books. Let us know if you need some more info!

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Sounds good - I'll try to swing by the space once everything is in place. Looking forward to meeting you too, David.