Saturday, April 30, 2011

Wouldn't it be great to meet a business partner online?

I have started a lot of different businesses. Most of them have failed, in the sense that they are no longer operating. The main lesson I have learned is that it is much better to start a business with a partner than to go it alone. Risk is shared, skills are shared, sweat equity is pooled and the end product is usually superior.

The trouble is finding a partner.

I don't know a good way to do it. It seems to be a friend-of-a-friend process, or who you went to school with thing, which is remarkably inefficient. It's a big world and everyone's circle of friends is relatively tiny.

It hit me one day when I was at lunch in Springfield with one of my clients, the Federation of Women Contractors. One of the women was talking about her son who had married a woman from Scotland. They were from the Chicago suburbs. I asked how they met, and she answered (you can predict): online. She said that on his profile he was very clear -- he was looking for a wife. Nothing else. And the woman who found who was looking for a husband with similar qualities that he had happened to be Scottish. And now he lives over there, happy as a clam.

Without an internet dating site, it would be essentially impossible to find a person with remarkably similar interests and goals over great distances without any shared friends. These dating sites are remarkably efficient market-making platforms for pairing up life partners. They make every other method of finding a spouse or a girlfriend seem ridiculously limiting and self-defeating. How do you meet a compatible stranger without a platform? Chance? Serendipity? Referrals?

That's when it hit me. There isn't an analogous platform for potential business partners to meet. There isn't a dating site for business partners. And there should be.

I would use it. In a heartbeat.

So, I'll create one. The trouble is, I need to use the product I'm trying to create in order to find the business partners (like a programmer and a marketer) I need to create the product. A bit of a Catch-22.

In the meantime, I'm working on the part that I can do: coming up with the filtering questions to get down to the most important qualities for potential business partners to know about each other. I've set up a surveymonkey site where my evolving questions are -- and I invite you to fill out the survey and 'join'

I've asked for advice from other entrepreneurs, and some people suggest I keep the idea to myself until I can line up funding, rercuit the people to run the company and then emerge as the first-mover to market. I've decided not to follow that path. Ideas are nice, but execution makes an organization work. So if someone else 'steals' this idea and actually executes it into a product and a viable business, good for them. An idea that never gets implemented ultimately isn't that valuable.

This product may fit best with LinkedIn (as there really isn't a great way to communicate with other people on LinkedIn) or, perhaps, the freelance sites like that list hundreds of thousands of freelancers available for hire. Networks become more valuable with more members, so adding onto an existing large network of potential business partners like programmers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, marketers and the like is probably easier than trying to create an entirely new network from scratch. The trick is finding the most useful way for strangers to match up as business partners by filtering down to the essential attributes about themselves that they are willing to share. Maybe there's an expert out there that already knows how to do this, but I suspect it's a trial-and-error proposition to come up with the right questions. I'd be interested in your feedback.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Closing the ignorance gap is good for progressives and Democrats

Millions of Americans believe that Medicare is not a government program. Millions. Medicare is probably the most effective socialist program in the country (the government taxes people and directly pays for the service without any for-profit middleman insurance company -- seems like socialism to me!), and instead of warming people up to the idea of government making their lives better, millions of people think that the government ought to stay out of Medicare.

This is ignorance.

And this civic or government ignorance that millions of American suffer from is a heavy anchor holding back progressive governance.

The more people hold reflexive anti-government suspicions, even as they like some of the biggest government programs like Medicare, the harder it is to build consensus for reasonable, pragmatic investments in our economy like Medicare for everyone or expanded public transportation. This is because the ignorant won't agree.

We must educate the ignorant. If after they come to understand that Medicare is, in fact, a government program, and they are still against the government out of some precious feeling that the government is bad, then fine. But some of the people who are anti-government but pro-Medicare will change their mind and drop their animus against the government when they are shown what the government actually is.

Who will close the ignorance gap? It isn't fair to ask a political candidate or a political party to do so. Their job is to earn majority support from the people where they are -- not necessarily to change the electorate's views on issues. They are working to change the electorate's views on the candidates and the parties, but not on issues. If a candidate finds that a good chunk of the people are simply misinformed about an issue, it isn't the candidate's job to teach them. So who will?

Who will pay for a mailing to every Republican-leaning senior in America that says Medicare is the Government!

I think we tend to overlook the very large benefits of relatively small civic education targeted to the ignorant whose ignorant views result in voting for the anti-government party. (Not all Republican voters are ignorant, of course, but for those that are in the 'keep government out of Medicare vein', some civic education could change their minds and their votes.) As a related example, I'm convinced that millions of Americans have no idea how marginal federal income tax rates work (if we raise taxes on income above $250,000, no one who makes less than that in a year will pay higher taxes). If all American did understand it, then no one would fall prey to the ignorant response to raising the highest marginal income tax rate with 'you're going to end up paying higher taxes....somehow'. And people do!

I'm increasingly intrigued with the idea of waging a campaign to narrow the ignorance gap among swing voters. People need to be educated in order to make up their own mind about the state of our nation. We can't expect a modern, intelligent, pragmatic government if we don't invest in educating the people who ultimately run it, and that's the electorate.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

For better politics, talk about money

"We're not allowed to talk about money in our society. You can't ask someone how much they make. That's considered impolite. It's taboo. But who does that benefit? The rich people. They don't want us talking to each other about money. Because if we do, we're going to want to do something about how much we're all struggling and how much money they make."

That blew me away about a decade ago at a fundraising workship put on by Kim Klein. The topic was how to fundraise for a non-profit organization (key point: ask someone for money), but I learned then that talking about money is the key to progressive politics.

Politics is basically about money. The rich want to keep it. The rest of us want to take that money and spend it to make our lives better off. That's the bottom line.

Turns out, the rich are actually better off when we take that money and spend it on everyone else, because that makes the economy work better. Wouldn't you know it, when the masses of people have more money to spend, we spend it! And that makes the economy work. When the masses do not have a lot of money to spend, we don't spend it, and that slows the economy down, hurting the rich as well.

Unfortunately, most of the rich (and the Republican Party that supports them) do not see it that way. They just want to keep the money, even if makes the rest of the country essentially bankrupt. So the big ongoing fight at the center of American politics is whether we are going to take the money that the rich get now and spend it on the rest of us or not. That's going to be at the center of President Barack Obama's re-election campaign in a year and half, when he campaigns to raise the federal income tax rate on income above $250,000 and all Republicans will oppose it.

The fascinating part of American politics is trying to figure out how to convince the people who make less than $250,000 a year and who vote Republican to understand that they are hurting themselves financially. They may have other reasons to vote Republican that are correct on the merits (maybe they are anti-choice or they are for unilateral military action) but on whether or not they are making their family better off financially, people who are not rich and and vote Republican are objectively voting to make their families worse off.

This paradox of non-rich Republican voters choosing to make their families worse off on behalf of some other cause (the concept of a small government, perhaps) needs a lot more attention. We need polling data and focus groups with all sorts of representative demographic groups (women, men, younger, older, southern, northern) to really understand how best to point out to non-rich Republicans the financial consequences of Republican policies. We non-rich people vastly outnumber the rich people in any given year (the top 2 percent of wage earners by definition only make up 2% of the population). But somehow, 98% of Republican voters are supporting tax policies that only benefit the top 2%, and they either don't know that they are hurting their families by doing so or they don't care. We need to understand which it is, and we need to find out which of those non-rich Republicans are open to accepting that financial truth if explained to them from a trusted source in a non-confrontational way.

I think the main reason why so many non-rich people vote for tax policies that hurt them is how little we talk about money in our culture.

It is to our advantage to get people talking about money. When people talk about how much they make, and whether they are getting by, and then talk about whether the people who are making a million or twenty million or two hundred million dollars this year can afford to pay more in taxes to make them better off, they are much more open to voting Democratic to raise taxes on high incomes. And when people do not talk about money at all, because it is taboo, they are not very open to raising taxes on the top 2%, because they assume that might somehow in some way be worse for them.

Most of politics is defining the question. A great and powerful independent educational campaign would be to ask the question directly to millions of middle-income Americans "Do you think millionaires can afford to pay 5% more of their income above $250,000 in taxes in order to make your family better off?"

Perhaps it's another version of class consciousness. An educational campaign to remind people how much they make and that in order to look out for their family, they should vote for the party that will look out for families who make about what they make, not the people who make a million dollars a year.

It's a campaign that will never be waged through earned media. But by getting people to think -- perhaps through paid media or through social media or direct mail -- "I have to look out for my family, and since I make under $100,000 a year, I have to vote for whoever will look out for people who make that amount of money" we are on the path to a consensus to raise taxes on the wealthy who can afford to pay it.

I can imagine a radio ad that appeals to men broadcast on the news stations. Instead of hawking gold investments, insurance or hair growth products, sell the listener on how he and his family are better off if we raise taxes on income above $250,000 a year, since somebody's got to pay for the government, and it's either going to be you or them. Or a financial advice columnist type of voice, like Terry Savage, but instead of calling on people to wake up and get their personal spending under control by acknowledging how much they make and bringing their expenditures in line with their income, send out the same frank, insistent call for families to take control of their finances by voting for the candidates who are going to help people who support their income bracket, not the wealthy.

I want to help run an independent, educational campaign that gets more American voters to think about politics through the lens of how much money they actually make in order to make their family better off.