Category Archives: “The Sharing Economy”

Seldon on Love and Freelancing

Sensei Tyra Seldon asks, “Can love be the guiding force of your business?” [1]

She had me at “love”.

When we think of passion, compassion, and even love, we may associate these words with romantic or familial relationships. Rarely do we link these terms to business.

The problem is, of course, that we “want to be profitable, but we also want compassion to be a cornerstone of what we do”. This almost always leads to choices, often tough choices.

Practically anybody can make money, but how you make your money and what you compromise to do it are equally as important.

Writing for the Freelancers Union Blog, she points out that this is particularly tough for independent workers, who may not have a business degree or classwork in business ethics for guidance. A gig worker who is learning as she goes has to “be careful because unethical business practices can be subtle.” As she says, a business opportunity, any business opportunity, may be “incongruent” with your own values.

The good news is that an independent worker can walk away. It’s not so easy to quit a job and walk away from a career when a large organization chooses a problematic business. But a freelancer can say “no, thanks” to any job.

The bad news is that not only could you starve to death trying to be ethical, but you are on your own. Working for a large organization is easy, because you can delegate ethics to others. A freelancer has no choice but to choose for himself.

I will say that I consider not having an MBA and training in “business ethics” to actually be beneficial. The very fact that business schools feel a need for a specific course in “ethics” tells you that the rest of the curriculum is not about ethics. As far as I can tell, business school is all about teaching people to ignore normal human ethics in favor of some kind of economic rationalism.

My own view is that there is no such thing as “business ethics”. There are only personal ethics. You have to know your own values, and make your business conform to you. This is not what they teach at business school.

As Sensei Seldon points out,  one of the real advantages of freelancing is that you can say things like:

  • I am in love with my company.
  • I am passionate about sharing my goods and services with the world.
  • I demonstrate compassion when interfacing with my clients.

(See other posts by Seldon on Freelancing here.)


  1. Tyra Seldon, Can love be the guiding force of your business?, in Frrelancers Union – Blog. 2017. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2017/07/31/can-love-be-the-guiding-force-of-your-business-2/

A Map of the Gig Economy

Speaking of the Gig Economy….

The iLabour Project (“Investigating the Construction of Labour Markets, Institutions and Movements on the Internet”) [3] has begun to try to track workers and work using online job and task services. This isn’t the whole of the Gig Economy, but it certainly is an important sector. Indeed, their data showed a 26% increase between 2015 and 2016—this is why we’re all interested in it!

What does that headline number mean? The data is amassed by retrieving “vacancies” from the most used online job markets. (This is done via a web crawl, so it is snapshots.) When possible, they record the type of work (‘occupation”) and the country where the worker resides. The gigs are “different market mechanisms and contracting styles, from online piecework to hourly freelancing.” [2].

One wonders if Uber and is included in this index? It’s not an open market, but it sure as heck is at the dark heart of the gig economy.

This index is an “indicator”, not an absolute measure. The year to year growth is a growth in…this index. Mainly, this means more “vacancies”, and presumably, more vacancies filled. Given the nature of these platfoms, that could mean more workers, or more work per worker, or both.

The iLabor project produced a supplement that describes the geographic location of the gig workers sampled, and the type of work.

Online Labour Index top occupation by country, 1-6 July 2017

The data confirms our expectations that India and Bangladesh are large sources of labor in these services, though US and UK also supply labor in certain specializations.

This index seems very limited to me. It has nothing to say about many vital aspects of this job market.

There is very little about the employers. There is nothing about outcome: productivity, satisfaction, value added.

As noted, there is little information about the number of workers, the hours per workers, and the income of workers. We are all concerned about the widespread trend toward very low wage piece work, that cannot support the workers.


The Oxford group makes their data available for others to use, which enabled Andrew Karpie to add his own analysis [1].  His analysis shows that “the U.S. and Canada account for over 50% of the global total projects requested”, with the overall finding that “it is clear that online work exchange activity today is largely between the U.S. and certain less-developed Asian countries.

Well duh!

He concludes that “this is likely true for three main reasons: (1) wage arbitrage (frequently), (2) lower transaction costs and (3) supply of skilled labor/talent (with shortages in the U.S.).”

No kidding?

This is not a pretty picture, and I’m always surprised by people who think this “innovation” is even remotely a good idea.

But it’s very good to see some actual data about the gig economy, even if it is limited in so many ways.


  1. Andrew Karpie, Where Are Online Workers Located? — Oxford Internet Institute Tool Breaks it Down, in Spend Matters Network. 2017. https://spendmatters.com/2017/07/13/online-workers-located-oxford-internet-institute-tool-breaks/
  2. Otto Kassi, How the Online Labour Index is constructed, Oxford International Institute, 2016. http://ilabour.oii.ox.ac.uk/how-the-online-labour-index-is-constructed/
  3. Oxford International Institute, Introducing the iLabour Project. 2016. http://ilabour.oii.ox.ac.uk/
  4. Kevin Stark, Oxford Internet Institute Launches Interactive Map of the Global Gig Economy. Sharable.July 27 2017, http://www.shareable.net/blog/oxford-internet-institute-launches-interactive-map-of-the-global-gig-economy

 

 

Seldon on Racial Divide in Freelancing

Tyra Seldon blogs about the racial divide in freelancing.

Studies suggest that there is a racial divide in freelancing, but the larger question is why?

It seems likely that there is a “gap”, even if there isn’t exceptionally solid data. Seldon points to a report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which documents “self employment” statistics for the USA [2]. She notes that this isn’t necessarily the same as “freelancing”, but it does show that blacks are substantially less likely to be “self employed” than whites.

(I note in passing that the BLS counts 15 million self-employed, about 10.1% of the workforce. The Freelancers Union counts 55 million Freelancers, about 35% of workers [1]. The FU gets its larger number because it counts temporary workers, moonlighters, and others that may or may not be counted as self-employed by the BLS.)

The basic “gap” in the BLS data is the finding that roughly twice the percentage of white workers are self-employed compared to black / African American. ([2], p. 6) This difference is a bit larger than the same gap between men and women. We have to be careful here, because this number actually means that of black workers, a smaller proportion are self-employed versus employed by others, compared to white workers.  (What is the “right proportion”?)

I don’t want to belabor the statistics. There is plenty of other evidence of racial disparities in “the new economy”, including the old a “digital divide”, concerns about development of entrepreneurs [3], and observations about coworking communities.

Seldon’s main point is, why would this be?  And what can be done about it?

Seldon  solicited discussion from the support group she moderates. She highlights a comment that lists reasons why a black worker might not freelance.

  1. Lack of Security
  2. Lack of Representation
  3. Lack of Mentors
  4. Stretched too Thin

The first and fourth items are pretty generic challenges that are surely faced by every worker, especially from a poor family.  Freelancing is risky, at least if you have other opportunities.

Items 2 and 3 suggest the important cultural context. If you never meet a Freelancer, never have a strong role model, are not encouraged, then obviously you are less likely to try it. Again, this is a factor for many people, including women, older workers, working mothers, and so on.

Seldon is a passionate advocate for freelancing, and sees it as a vital and booming opportunity. She does not want people to be overlooked and left out “while the economy booms with opportunities”. I’m not so sure about the opportunities, but there is no reason for needless racial, gender or cultural sorting among Freelancers or anyone else.

I will add another point:  one of the strengths of freelancing is networking and collaboration among a community of peers. This works best of all when the pool is both diverse [5] and inclusive of the broader society. Freelancers will produce better work if they are working with a variety of peers.  It’s that simple.

What can be done?

Seldon advocates “radical hospitality” (which is a theme from coworking communities, coliving, and community spaces), mentoring, and general “reaching out”. I agree. Freelancing isn’t all about handling money, contracts, etc. It’s about working together.

 

I note that coworking is successful partly because there is an emerging cadre of effective community leaders who practice and teach “radical hospitality” and community feeling.

Coworking also offers a caution. There are a great variety of coworking spaces, with different communities and cultural vibes. Coworkers self-select a workplace and community that suits them. This has resulted in happy workers, but also workplaces that are not a cross-section of their local community (however you define that).

As Samara Lynn advises, “Black startup owners may also want to search for co-working spaces with multiethnic staff and fellow entrepreneurs.” ([4], p. 38).

This self-segregation is not necessarily a great “solution” to the problem.

Finally, –I say, “get ‘em young”! The best way for people to grow up to be independent workers is for kids to want to be like those people. Freelancers should try to get into school, after school clubs, etc., to teach and practice radical hospitality for all kids.


  1. Freelancers Union, Freelancing in America: 2016. Freelancers Union and Upwork, New York, 2016. https://fu-prod-storage.s3.amazonaws.com/content/None/FreelancinginAmerica2016report.pdf
  2. Steven F. Hipple. and Laurel A. Hammond, Self-employment In The United States. Bureau of Labor Statistics., Washington, DC, 2016. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/1571/cf7d653ea85b9d77a305cad3b193ea17b1e6.pdf
  3. Julie S. Hui  and Shelly D. Farnham, Designing for Inclusion: Supporting Gender Diversity in Independent Innovation Teams, in Proceedings of the 19th International Conference on Supporting Group Work. 2016, ACM: Sanibel Island, Florida, USA. p. 71-85. https://northwestern.box.com/s/f1fxpxgmy2hxci1j8duablc7524p0skz
  4. Lynn, Samara, Finding the Perfect Co-working Space. Black Enterprise, 46 (9):58-59, 2016. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=115709004&site=ehost-live
  5. Scott E. Page, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2007.
  6. Tyra Seldon, Freelancing and the racial divide, in FreelancersUnion Blog. 2017. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2017/05/25/freelancing-and-the-racial-divide/

 

GCUC 2017: The “Coworky Awards”

I did not attend GCUC  USA conference this year. After last year, it is clear that GCUC is transitioning to be an “industry” conference, focused on the business of running coworking operations. Much of the program was in that vein and not especially interesting to me. Pretty much the only talk of real interest is the 2017 Coworking Survey from Deskmag.

One new feature was the first “Coworky Awards”, “Honoring the spaces, places, and people that make this industry juicy

This award (consciously or unconsciously) reveals quite a lot about the nature of the GCUC today.  First, the conference self-identifies with “this industry”. Second, the topics of interest are the physical spaces and individual people. Notably, there is nothing about community, work, or workers.

This broad characterization isn’t completely accurate, of course.

The categories are rather opaque to me, but do include topics other than industry insider stuff (though it generally strikes me as corporate style back-slapping).  Some of the categories are trivial (Best Website Design, Best Tagline), but some are pretty significant (Best Collective or Alliance, Best Social Impact Program). And some are inscrutable to outsiders (what the heck is a “Rainbow Unicorn”? What does “Volunteer to the Greater Movement” even mean?)

Let’s look at a few.

The social impact award mentions include Cogite (Tunisia), advocacy program trying to “to establish opportunities for dialogue between entrepreneurs and the Tunisian government”. A second recognizes COHIP (Toronto), health insurance for coworkers. The third is organized charity races from ios offices (Mexico).

These are worthy endeavors, though it is hard to determine the actual impact.

The category for “Best Technology To Run Your Space” recognizes three companies providing nice all-in-one packages that let pretty much anyone set up a coworking space anywhere (you have to bring your own community, of course). These are pretty nice products and pricing looks reasonable. But there are dozens of similar products, including an open source product (Nadine [3]), so I’m not certain how the selection was made.

Finally, there were three “Best Space Design” recogniitions. The winner Is Bespoke (SF), which is lauded thusly:

Bespoke Coworking, Events, and Demo was designed specifically as a retail-tech hub in the heart of Westfield Shopping Centre. Each square foot was meticulously designed to be flexible enough to exude the warmth of a second home, while doubling up on functionality.” 

I haven’t visited any of the mentioned spaces, but the pictures on the web show a space that is anything but “warm” and certainly not homey. I’ll take their word for the “doubling up on functionality”.

The main thing I note is that this award is based entirely on the perspective of the real estate developer. No mention why workers want to work in a shopping centre, or have “flexible” space, nor even why workers would want “the warmth of a second home”. (Do they have a first home, and is it “warm”?) There is certainly no mention that workers or their work benefit from this design.

In short, it is optimal space from the point of view of the rental company, but who knows if it is good for workers?


The bottom line is that the “hijacking” (a la Cat Johnson) continues, GCUC isn’t about coworking it is about the coworking sector of the “social office industry”,

Sigh.


  1. Global Coworking Unconference Conference (GCUC). Coworky Awards Winners 2017. 2017, http://coworkyawards.com/coworky-awards-2017-winners/.
  2. Deskmag and Global Coworking Unconference Conferences (GCUC), The Global Coworking Survey, in Global Coworking Unconference Conferences (GCUC). 2017: New York. http://usa.gcuc.co/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/GCUC-2017-Global-Coworking-Survey.pdf
  3. Office Nomads. The Nadine Project. 2017, http://nadineproject.org/.

 

What is Coworking?

Please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming in 2017.

Open Source Seeds – Ask For Them

It seems like a no-brainer. Seeds are a vital resource, we need to take care of them, and make sure a robust, diverse array of seeds is available to farmers everywhere.

But nothing is obvious if there is a buck to be made. These days companies are imposing licenses on seeds, essentially “renting” seeds to farmers.  In the extreme, it is illegal to plant seeds produced by the crops you grow, because you don’t “own” them. A natural process is now being privatized. This development is problematic for many reasons, ethical, economic, and biological, which I won’t belabor here.

One response to this Is a movement to create a pool of “open source” seeds, following the analogy of open source software. The goal is to make seeds freely available for use by anyone. This does not preclude commercial use of seeds, but precludes exclusive and perpetual claims of ownership.

What does “open source” mean in the case of seeds?

There are a broad variety of open source software licenses and regimes, and the relationship between an open source license and other intellectual property rules is complicated.

Besides software such as Linux and Gnu, the open source model has been applied to various kinds of “open source hardware”, “open source science”, and “open source design” .

The bottom line is that you need to choose what achieves your goals.

For example, Creative Commons has systematized the concepts in its own array of license options (mainly for digital assets), as well as promoting the “choose what you need” approach.

With so many models, it is hardly surprising that there are different ways to implement “open source seeds”.

One approach is the “The Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI)”, which works through an ethical pledge to eschew patents or other restrictive licenses. Like some open source licenses, you agree that the seed and all derivative products are covered by this pledge. Like open source software, these seeds can be bought and sold and otherwise used in commercial products and services. But they cannot be owned.

A more forceful approach is the Open Source Seeds license initiative.  This project has created a legally valid license that can be attached to seeds, imposing their version of free use. As in the case of the OSSI pledge, the license lets you create “derivative works” (e.g., improved strains), but they must be covered by the OSS license. Anything covered by OSS license is forever free.

(Philosophically, this “born free, always free” model is particularly apt for seeds, no?)

As great as these initiatives sound, it is early days still.

For one thing, these agreements are far from universally enforceable. The OSSI pledge has no legal force at all, as far as I can tell. And the OSS license is an EU thing, and probably legally tenuous in the USA and other outlaw jurisdictions.

Given that large companies have built their businesses on monopolies crafted on patented seeds and chemicals, there is a huge and powerful resistance to these strains. These companies will use their economic power to keep open source seeds out of the hands of farmers. They might even use political muscle to suppress and outlaw them. We shall see.

From the experience of open source software, we know that getting a large company or two on board would help a lot. (E.g., IBM’s nuanced support for Linux has helped keep the operating system very strong, without endangering the free use.) The maker movement has shown the desirability for libraries and markets for open exchange of DIY designs. In the case of seeds, one could imagine digital markets that would help match customers to providers through direct sales.

In any case, this is certainly something home gardeners and locavores to pay attention to. Ask for open source, plant open source, share open source.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault. (Teh ultimate backup.)

  1. Nithin Coca, Nonprofit Creates New Open-Source License for Seeds. Sharable.May 22 2017, http://www.shareable.net/blog/german-nonprofit-creates-new-open-source-license-for-seeds
  2. Open Source Seeds. Open Source Seeds. 2017, http://www.opensourceseeds.org/en.
  3. Open Source Seeds Initiative. Open Source Seeds Initiative,. 2017, http://osseeds.org/.

Open Source Alternatives to Uber?

There is considerable excitement these days about Platform Cooperativism, with good reason (e.g. see earlier posts here, here, here). This concept can be dressed up fancy , but it boils down to the fact that the technology used by exploitative for profit platforms such as Uber can be used equally well to build on other “business models”, including worker and user owned cooperatives.

The tools are already in the hands of the workers, all we have to do is pick them up. Lean in, hell! Waltz right in and take command!

“Replacing Uber” is the poster child for this idea. We all understand it, and most of us need transportation. The problem is, Uber is a great service and an evil business. We all understand why we’d like to have a saintly Uber.

The Platform Cooperativism case is this: Uber is not really rocket science. it’s easy enough to replicate Uber’s technology. The basic tools are already freely available. Heck, even I could whack together a Uber clone, and I’m way out of practice.

The question is, can people build successful alternative businesses?

The Technology is Out There

In the past I have looked at “sharing economy” platforms out there already, such as here, here, here.

This month, Nithin Coca iinterviewed Roman Pushki, the creator of LibreTaxi, an “open source alternative to Uber or Lyft”.  This project is open source (and hence, hackable), and aims to substitute for the viciously exploitative ride hailing services.

The key features for LIbreTaxi are:

  • Free for drivers
  • Anyone can use it
  • Cash payment on arrival

In short, LibreTaxi is completely unregulated, unlicensed, and uncontrolled. There is no quality control on drivers or cars. There is vetting of either drivers or passengers. No one is responsible, you are on your own.

All this is a “feature” for, say, undocumented workers, people with junk cars, and drivers without driving licenses. But it is a “bug” from the point of view of safety, fair competition, and the rule of law.

LibreTaxi itself has no payment system, so it is up to the users to pay upon arrival.*

In my view, this cash payment makes the service much less friendly than Uber/Lyft, which handles the payment in the background. When the driver and customer don’t have to deal with money in person it makes the whole experience much friendlier. Sensei Claire Marshall has observed the psychological value of taking cash out of the relationship,

the most startling thing I found in my month in the sharing economy. When money was taken out of the equation everyone was happier.” ([3], Pp 90)

Clearly, LibreTaxi is a bare bones technology, and is certainly not a full replacement for Uber.  But you could build a replacement on this base.


* It would be perfectly possible technically to hack in connection to a payment scheme or, more likely, to cryptocurrency transactions. This would be a very logical extension of LibreTaxi.

Replicating the Business is Hard

In an earlier article, Coca discussed other “ethical” alternatives to the hated Uber. Of particular interest are taxi cooperatives  or an increasing number of ride hailing services. These offer services technically similar to Uber/Lyft, with varied ownership and business models. Unlike LibreTaxi, these services embed the technology in some kind of organization, a cooperative or a local business, so they are legal and responsible, as well as “ethical”.

This all seems great, though it isn’t easy to be sure who’s who and just how “ethical”—for your own ethical standards—any given alternative is. Just because it’s not Uber doesn’t make it angelic—see Lyft.

It is also true that these services are far from universally available. The technology works pretty much everywhere, and we want these to be local coops and businesses rather than Earth striding colossi. But most of the alternatives are available only in major cities, and in some cases, only a handful of cities.  This does most of us very little good, and leaves us at the mercy of the plunderers.

The tools are there, but there is a lot of work to do.


  1. Nithin Coca,  Five (More) Reasons to #DeleteUber — And Some Ethical Alternatives. Sharable.February 24 2017, http://www.shareable.net/blog/five-more-reasons-to-deleteuber-%E2%80%94-and-some-ethical-alternatives
  2. Nithin Coca,  Q&A: LibreTaxi’s Roman Pushkin on Why He Made a Free, Open-Source Alternative to Uber and Lyft. Sharable.March 22 2017, http://www.shareable.net/blog/qa-libretaxis-roman-pushkin-on-why-he-made-a-free-open-source-alternative-to-uber-and-lyft
  3. Claire Marshall, How to Make Money (and a whole lot more) by Sharing. 2015. http://www.sharestories.net/

 

What is Coworking? Trying To Be Kidful Downunder

I have commented before that one of the unsolved problems for coworking is how to accommodate kids. Day care for working parents is a hard problem for conventional organizations, and most coworking spaces don’t have any provisions at all. A few have tried and faced problems. But the list is growing, all around the world.

Robert Ollett blogged recently about Happy Hubbub in Melbourne (Australia), which offers a conventional array of coworking services, plus on site day care. There are some details that depend on local policies, other aspects are pretty universal.

Even with subsidies, daycare is expensive, much more expensive than coworking. The information indicates that Hubbub charges about four times as much for daycare as for coworking! This is typical. The cost of kid care is so much higher, I have seen coworking spaces that offered free coworking when you buy day care, sort of like free coffee or fee mints.

For coworking spaces which are operating at the lowest cost possible, day care is way, way outside the reach of their members.

One reason childcare is expensive is that the facilities and staffing are regulated by local authorities. This is a very good thing, but compliance costs money.  In addition, childcare generally requires competent and trained human staff, another cost driver.

You can set up coworking in almost any space, with almost no staff, but that isn’t true for child care.

For that matter, the little ones have their own requirements. Catering needs to be age appropriate, and they need interesting activities while mum is busy working. And so on. This is all standard stuff for day care operators, but it’s totally alien to coworking operators!

Even the coworking facilities themselves probably have different requirements. Parking is probably much more important for parents bringing in their kids. The work space needs to be close to, but isolated from, the children. There probably should be parent plus child lounge areas, separate from both work and child care area.  Handling kids of different ages might require some creativity. And so on.

Hubbub has been successful so far, though it is actually pretty small (sixteen slots for kids). Compared to some “commodity coworking” sides with hundreds of desks, it is tiny. Could you scale it up? How big is too big for this kind of site?  I’m not sure, and I’m certainly not telling you that bigger is better.

Community, community, community

Erin Richards of Hubbub comments that establishing a trusted reputation is essential for the child care service. This is a completely different kind of reputation from the coworking side.

I think the deeply tricky problem fo solve in all of this is that this is not only two businesses in the same location, but that the two businesses are both about community—but two very different kinds of community.

Coworking is all about community, a community of like-minded peers—workers with similar skills, needs, and goals. Drop-off child care is about trust, and ideally about a community of like-minded peers—parents and care givers with similar needs and goals.

“Coworking with kids” must really be about a community that is both peer workers and peer parents. That’s easy enough to say, but it’s not that easy to do. It’s kind of a Venn diagram, looking for the intersection of the group of simpatico independent workers, and the group of parents who want this kind of child care.

This is a niche, and it cuts both ways. Richards notes that the double draw is attractive for some, “These parents try the coworking space for the childcare, but keep coming back because of the community.” On the otter hand, workers who might otherwise be pleased may be disinclined to participate. “There’s definitely a psychological barrier for people who don’t have kids to come here”.

Thinking about this, I can see that it is not likely that you can have successful coworking and “sprinkle on” some child care, nor have successful childcare and “drop in” some coworking. Making this work is hard, but Hubbub and other sites are beginning to show how to make it work.

One key is the right kind of community leadership, people who are “peers” in both the target communities. The greatest community wrangler in the world may be useless with kids, and the finest tot wrangler might be hopeless at office management.   In the case of Hubbub, this challenge is addressed by the partnership of two leaders, with the right combination of skills.

I think that is their secret, and I’m betting that the success they have seen so far is due to having the right leaders.


  1. Happy Hubbub. Happy Hubbub – coworking with children. 2017, https://www.happyhubbub.com.au/.
  2. Robert Ollett, Coworking Heroes: Happy Hubbub, in habu. 2017. https://www.habu.co/blog/coworking-heroes-happy-hubbub

 

What is Coworking?

Note:  please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming in 2017.