Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Embracing Entropy -- the Consumerization of Work

The global economy is in a long-term path toward disaggregation, a gradual shift in economic power from the enterprise to the individual.

This shift is most visible among the most "wired" segments of society -- workers on the leading edge of the mobile / social / "indie" revolution.

But as Venkat Rao illustrates in his excellent article, "A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100", the erosion of corporate employment has been underway for over 30 years.

Bryce Roberts published a great piece over the weekend called "Rise of the Independents" -- in his words:
I think we’re entering a golden age for Indie businesses. Some will take the shape of long term durable companies, others will take the shape of projects that spin up and wind down to meet bursts of demand or to scratch a passing itch.
With democratized digital distribution and the rise of crowdfunding sources of capital, many companies will be in a position to stay independent and play by their own rules. And I think that’s a very important and powerful development worthy of it’s own word.

What Bryce *didn't* say (but acknowledged in the reader comments), is that this trend creates all kinds of interesting opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors with a passion for powering the rise of the indies.

This isn't a new idea -- some of the most exciting companies and technology trends of the past few years represent various flavors of "indie economy platforms"...


But beyond these obvious, headline examples are dozens of lesser-known or more oblique examples of the same theme:

  • Maker Markets -- Elance is the grandaddy of technical labor markets,  oDesk is a more recent (and more diversified) entrant, and recent TechStars SEA grad Group Talent is staking a claim to the high end of the "digital creative work" market (disclosure: I'm an investor).

  • Task Markets -- Amazon's Mechanical Turk pioneered the marketplace for lower-skill tasks, but sexed-up / localized Silicon Valley versions include TaskRabbit, Zaarly, and the most recent + high-touch entrant, Coffe + Power.

  • Content Markets -- There are dozens of pay-by-the-word content marketplaces out there, but Seattle entrepreneur Joe Heitzeberg brought the form up a level with MediaPiston, and TechStars NY grad Contently has now introduced the model at the elite levels of professional journalism.

  • Seller Markets -- Avon, Mary Kay and Amway are pioneers of Multi-Level Marketing (MLM), relying on armies of independent sales reps, peculiar wholesale value chains and complex, game-like seller incentive systems to drive sales. But lately this tired (and somewhat tainted) model has been reinvigorated by brands like Stella & Dot, Chloe & Isabel and Passion Parties, drawing a new generation of (mostly female) sellers into the game.

The bulk of the economy -- and the most obvious, near-term startup ideas -- still sit firmly within the traditional enterprise and consumer markets. But if you're interested in the future of work and not just the present tense, take a minute to think about a world in which the basic unit of economic value is the individual, not the enterprise -- not just the consumerization of IT, but the "consumerization of work"

Instead of fighting the natural entropy in the economy, I'm interested in makers who aspire to be the dark matter in this expanding labor universe -- the invisible but essential glue that holds it all together. If you share this passion, please give me a shout.