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Lifestyle, Inc.

I, like so many other people, have had relationships with executives at companies who had designs on becoming rich (or at least "financially secure") by cashing in quickly and thoroughly on the delusions about value created by the dot-com bubble.

I had a fairly close relationship with the CEO of one of these companies. The "rich" part never happened for him, because the bubble burst, although thankfully the company is still in business.

I had a conversation with this CEO that sticks with me til this day. The conversation might have occurred after the dot-com bubble burst or maybe shortly before, I don't remember. We were talking about globalization, or something, I think. Something that polarizes people, anyway, so it was probably a pretty heated conversation. During that conversation, the CEO made this statement to me:

"[Company X, a small, but well-known software company]? They're a lifestyle company. They're never going to amount to anything but a small company. They can go on indefinitely, but they'll never make it big. My company is not going to be a lifestyle company. We're going to be bigger than that."

Well, here we are, three or four years later. I'm sad to say that the CEO's company hasn't made it big. They took quite a bit of outside investment from people who came to believe that this investment would pay off handsomely, but it hasn't, and it's very likely that it never will. And that's OK, that' just the way it goes, nothing wrong with it; can't learn without failing, gotta get back up, brush yourself off, and try again, better than to tried and have failed, and all that.

But the term lifestyle company always stuck with me for some reason. I've come to realize that the term "lifestyle company" is a great term for exactly the kind of company I always want to work for. I wouldn't work for any other kind of company, ever.

What does it mean to want to work at a lifestyle company? It means six simple things:

  • I want to enjoy what I do. That's requisite. If I'm not generally enjoying it, it's not worth doing.
  • I don't ever want to hear the words "exit strategy" again. A lifestyle company doesn't have one or need one. A lifestyle company's exit strategy is to stay in business. Forever, or as long as possible anyway.
  • I want my work to represent something more to me than dollars and cents. I'd like to create things during my work day that I can be proud of independent of their dollar value.
  • I don't want to be embarrassed by my company. For example, I don't want my company to be featured arranging for services from harsh Indian sweatshops on Lou Dobb's Moneyline or cooking the books ala Enron. It's said that corporations are by definition amoral. It's time to spoon-feed bit of morality back into corporations, as far as I'm concerned.
  • I want to be empowered to do the right thing, particularly when it comes to dealing with customers. I don't want to need to sell something to a customer just because it pads a corporate bottom line when there are better alternative options that I could provide to that customer which might not be quite as profitable, but don't actually hurt me.
  • I want to get paid a reasonable wage that gives me a chance to pay my bills and furthermore gives me a chance to always have a $20 bill in my pocket, and oh it would be nice to have enough money to retire with. On the other hand, I don't expect to ever be rich or to be able to quit working for a living until I'm 65 or 70 (as if I'd ever live that long anyway).

So, yay, good for me. I've figured out what I want to do. I even think I might be able to get away with this for a little while. But here's the issue: in ten years, the "normal" American will either work for himself in a very narrow specialized field, or he will work for a huge sprawling generalized conglomerate. There won't be much in-between; smaller generalized companies cannot and will not stay in business. (You have George Bush and cronies to thank most recently for this, by the way, by favoring in law the 1% of the population that represents those huge conglomerates. Forty years of consumerism hasn't helped either, but the last four years have accelerated the gluttony to warp speed). The large conglomerates are by definition the antithesis of the lifestyle company. Small general businesses, the usual suspects when lifestyle is involved, will be crushed by the larger ones in shakeout after shakeout.

What can we do, then, us fans of the lifestyle corporation? Well, the first thing: specialize, specialize, specialize. Do one tiny thing and do it the best you know how and make sure other people know that you're the best at it. Don't try to compete with the big boys on their enormous general turf; they can outbid, outrun, and outlast you there. But the good news is that they can't touch you if you own the turf and you water it every day and wave at people when they drive by you standing on it. It might be a tiny piece of turf, you might even have to put your feet really close together to even stand on it, but it will be your turf. They won't want it; it will be too small for them. They're so big that they might not even be able to see it.

The second thing we can do is to create opportunity through community. There is an underground market in open source software. It's the market of merit, where you can create opportunity for yourself by actually giving to a community. By giving, you actually magically create opportunity for yourself. It's actually pretty weird, but I've seen it in action. Folks in the open source world believe that "everybody does better when everybody does better". This goes for the actual business that is generated within this community too. It's very hard to explain, and it requires an almost religious leap of faith to see any benefit out of, but it indeed does exist.

The third thing you can do is to support organized efforts which make it possible to continue working at lifestyle corporations. People who want to work for lifestyle corporations need to get behind efforts like Paul Everitt's Zope Europe Association , where he is essentially almost singlehandedly creating a market where there was none there before. His market is based on government, and he represents some set of (presumably) diverse lifestyle companies. Paul's creative use of goodwill among people in this way makes him one of the most original leaders I know. We need to support people like this.

Also, vote Bush out of office. This of course goes without saying. ;-)

We don't all need to be drones and consumers. They will need to pry my lifestyle company from my cold dead hands at some point. Until then, I plan to ensure that I continue to have the option to work at one.

Created by chrism
Last modified 2004-02-19 07:11 PM

Amen

"Jack of all trades, master of none.", they can have their wide open plains..

Thanks Chris for giving me a vocabulary to filter potential employers with. It'll come in handy in the coming time in The Netherlands.

Carving a niche

I've found as I've gotten older that I've become more and more specialized. This has tended to scare me since I have an interest in a wide array of things, but in the end the world is fractal and the closer you get to a sufficiently interesting topic, the vaster it becomes.

One crucial characteristic of a "Lifestyle company" for me is that everyone wants to be there. Where no-one is there only to put in their time because they have to do it somewhere. No company is perfect, but in the kind of company I want to work for, the employees feel empowered to continually improve the company itself ahead of the products and the bottom line; IOW making the company a better place both to work for and to work with. These kinds of companies are almost by-definition small, and run by their employees and nearly flat organizationally.

Also, some of the best companies I have worked for were non-profits. That culture lends itself to more idealism and passion with your work. Helping people because they are people that need help, not because they are customers is pretty rewarding in and of itself.

Agree, but...

I don't agree with this: "Well, the first thing: specialize, specialize, specialize."
No company can afford to specialize into one thing, and miss out on other businesses oppurtunities. A lifestyle company almost always have skilled staff that can adapt to what there are needs for. My company is really a lifestyle company and we don't specialise at all. We do what we enjoy and think we can make money on.

"Sustenance company"

I've always felt the same, but had applied the term "sustenance company" to it. I've always been wary of corporate growth for growth's sake. Dirty. I've had notions in the past of forming software co-ops or other short-lived, short-term development enclaves.

specializing

peterbe: I can understand not wanting to pass up business opportunities. But I think taking literally any job that gets thrown at you is an anti-lifestyle-company policy, at least in my definition. You should be able to pick the jobs you want to do, because you can never be master of all trades; trying to do everything will water down the value you are able to provide to the customer, as well as your billable rate. Whenever I try to do that, I find myself in a phase of "working to learn" at all times where I can't really charge anything for the work I'm doing (ethically), because I know it's crap; it's crap because I've never done it before. So I do it but don't charge for it, and eventually I get good enough at it that I can start charging for it, but by that time, I've lost some tremendous number of hours to learning that thing. If I do work on that topic again, it's likely a wise investment. THe more work I do on that topic, the wiser it is. If I *never* do it again, it's a waste of time. So some specialization, where you work on stuff that you're familiar enough with to feel good about charging for it, I think is necessary. Just my $.02.

Couldn't agree more

Chris - I couldn't agree more with what you wrote here. It's so much the premise of how we conduct business at Abstract Edge. From an employer point of view, another thought for this is that smaller companies like ours can't necessarily afford to spend as much money on salaries as the Sapients and Modem Medias of the world. So how do we compete for the smartest, best employees? By providing a fanatasic lifestyle. We find that the smartest, most passionate developers aren't in it for the money. They're in it for the ability to work in a fun, passionate environment with other smart people on interesting projects. As long as they are making a reasonable salary, they don't necessarily need top dollar. The developers who only care about making the most money aren't the type of people we want anyway...

A humble echo

To this day, I could not set down in words the breadth of feelings that this post stirred up in me, something like a mixture of emphatic resonance and some degree of anger, the latter related to TINA herself. I got to know TINA last night. TINA, as in "There Is No Alternative" [to the capitalist system] is portrayed in this fabulous book I started reading last night : "After Capitalism", David Schweickart, 2002 (ISBN 0742513009).

I haven't found "The Light" yet (I'm only halfway through chapter 2), but I just want to stress out the usefulness of the ideas proposed in this book for someone interested in making a lifestyle organisation happen. Schweickart's book is not about tearing our current world apart. It's basically about providing ideological and practical tools for people willing to make the world a better place for all. In case you didn't know about it (and just to check if a 1 year old comment will make it to you!).

Merry Xmas!

You rock

What you wrote, Chris, summarized the life change I made a few years ago, leaving big business. And Plone was the catalyst. I will go back and read what you wrote anytime I need reminding of why it is I need this change.