Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Taming the Wandering Horse

This is part two in an accidental three part series. It was supposed to finish the thought. But I wasn't quite satisfied. Here are links to part one and part three.

Qui Diaz thinks that online social action tools haven't had the positive impact they're capable of having. In her opinion, the tools haven't reached their potential because the people building and managing them focus too little on educating the world about the problems the tools can solve. The tools themselves are good, but not enough people see the importance of their missions, so they remain largely irrelevant.

Night before last, I started responding to Qui's article. I acknowledged her observation. I noted what I think might be a natural startup tendency, a tendency that could partially explain the problem. And I wondered what I, someone trying to build a social action tool and avoid that aspect of entrepreneurial nature, should do.

When the full moon rose and called me back to werewolfing, however, I hadn't made much progress on the what I should do portion of the response, so I wrapped up what I did have at the time and promised to revisit.

It's a day later now than originally intended, but here goes again...

I'm building a tool the goal of which is to make socially and environmentally responsible consumption easy.

At its core, it's a brand comparison tool. You're about to go buy some toilet paper, and you want to buy responsibly. You go to the site, look at your options, see which businesses operate behind which brands, find out which of those businesses are considered most socially and environmentally responsible, and, hopefully, decide to buy your toilet paper from a business whose practices you feel comfortable supporting.

The tool is important, in my opinion, because there do not exist sufficient short-term, market-based incentives pushing businesses to participate in the creation of a humane and environmentally sustainable world. The tool is important because it can create such incentives. By bringing more information to the market, it can change consumer behavior. It can and hopefully will make it possible for consumers to consciously and purposefully reward the most socially and environmentally responsible companies with their business.

So I return to the horse and the cart.

The cart I'm building is my attempt (but by no means the only attempt) at a brand comparison website, my attempt at an online resource for would-be responsible consumers.

The horse is the desire to consume responsibly. It's the recognition that the purchase of any product or service is an act in support of a business, a message to the business telling it to please continue to do the things it does. It's frustration with a capitalism that operates on incomplete information. It's the yearning for a more perfect market.

And, to be fair, as readily as that horse walks over and makes friends, she's a wanderer, not an easy horse to corral.

Laziness is a barrier. Short attention spans. Fear of change. Exhaustion from overwork. Knee-jerk disdain for anything vaguely critical of "our way of life." Blind embrace of a comfortable status quo. Etc.

Regardless, however, I'm digging around for a good rope and harness, and I believe she's a horse I can catch, with a little patience and a little good fortune.

And it's patience, I hope, that will save us from obsession with the tool and free us explore and discuss the need.

We're building the first post-prototype version of the tool, and we're building for simplicity, community, collaboration, and feedback collection.

We want to show our users the purpose of the project without overwhelming them with functionality. We want to work closely and often individually with everyone that's willing to devote time and thinking to beta testing. We want to dive deep into the user-populated tool ourselves and encourage contribution and connection by treating the site like our blog and responding to every piece of content people provide. We want to offer our most active and committed (and horse whispering) users big influence over the project going forward. And we want our tool to have its feedback communication lines open at all times.

Essentially, we've designed and we're hoping we can build a tool that will invite its users to create the next generation of the tool.

Maybe this is what they all say. Maybe I'm just another rookie entrepreneur that hasn't fallen hard enough yet to realize his own lack of coordination.

Even if that's the case, I think we'll be ok. We're prepared to move slowly if necessary. We're prepared to scrap and scrape to maintain small movement and small momentum. We're prepared to rethink the whole project, prepared, if necessary, to dump the tool and start again from scratch.

And I'm prepared, of course, to admit that I have no idea what I'm talking about. Whether it's what I write here, what I ask of the developers, or what I say to beta users as I try to pull them onboard with the big vision and introduce them to the horse, I feel good about my perspective on my own inexperience and immaturity.*

Anyway, there you go. As usual, a post that turned into something I never expected to write, and, as usual, a post full of big dreams.

*Note: Committing myself to write thoughts like these on this blog has been hugely helpful in maintaining that perspective. Knowing that people might read what I write humbles my thinking considerably. Ridiculous thoughts are much more decieving in my head than on paper. And when they come out, and I don't recognize them, someone else surely will.


Danny Shapiro said...

You should not admit that you have no idea what you're talking about. You know so much about what you're doing and your passion paired with your knowledge should provide enough of a catalyst to get the site going. I was going to call it More Perfect Market, but now that's the name of this blog and not the name of what you're doing. Productipedia? Who knows.

Anyway, getting people to buy things more responsibly is fantastic (seriously, what a great idea) and it's something that so many people are interested in. Especially here in Seattle. You should move here instead of SF - think about it. Microsoft, now Google, plus Nintendo, Starbucks, Boeing... What else do you need?

Jake de Grazia said...

We're calling it The Carrot Project. I'm hoping we'll have the new logo ready to go by the end of the week. Carrots make good logos.

As for Seattle, dude, how could I move there after you leave? You go to work full time for 826 Time Travel, and then we'll discuss Seattle.