December 3, 2015
Jack Covert Selects: We-Commerce : How to Create, Collaborate, and Succeed in the Sharing Economy
We-Commerce: How to Create, Collaborate, and Succeed in the Sharing Economy by Billee Howard, Perigee, 208 pages, $25.00, Hardcover, December 2015, ISBN 9780399173622
Billee Howard has an intriguing vision of the new economy. Where many see empty factories dotting the landscape and a population still trying to rebuild from the ashes of financial collapse, she sees a world Andy Warhol foresaw and created in the Factory (his New York Studio) emerging—a world in which the “idea of blending art with commerce and beauty with business” is coming to pass. Where many see the rise of smart technology replacing jobs, she sees a digital marketplace where the laws of a new creative Darwinism prevail, laws “which favor the welfare of the we over the interests of me.” She tells us that the industrial era “I, Me, Mine” mind-set crashed along with the economy in 2008, and that:
In its place came an economy and a culture built on a reimagined version of our core American competencies: socialization, sharing, trust, purpose, passion, creativity, and collaboration. We are building an economy of We-Commerce and returning to our small-community origins, only now our village is global in scale.
She likens the moment to the Renaissance springing forth from the Dark Ages, and the Model T emerging after the Banker’s Panic of 1907, a time when we collectively reimagine the system and build it anew. It makes for interesting reading, but I’m not convinced the forces of history align in the way she imagines, that people suddenly woke up to how broken the old system was and decided to build a new one. The greater correlation may be that the Model T rolled out in 1908 was the cheapest option, and the cheapest option was the only option for many in a depressed economy. In the same way, I don’t know that everyone that has entered the sharing economy since the Great Recession did so out of conviction. The sharing and freelance economy has been, for so many people, the only option. After all, if you have enough money, there is probably no way you are going to head out and drive strangers around in your car for fun, or rent your home out to them when you’re not there.
But this is, perhaps, a chicken and egg argument that does not matter in the end, because the shift is happening, these are not necessarily bad options, and digital technology is powering it all in a way that is transforming the economy and the way we interact with one another in the marketplace. Uber and Airbnb aren’t new concepts, of course—car services and boarding houses—but the platform they are built on is new, and it is changing everything. So, in the end… point taken.
And this is just the beginning of the book. As you can tell, I thought it opened a little shaky, especially when it segues into things like the “failure is the new success” mantra of Silicon Valley in the first chapter, but the writing was good and compelling, and gets more intriguing quickly when she takes up the cause of hiring and cultivating “mavericks” in an organization and encouraging them to break the rules. The five examples she gives are:
- The Challenger, who criticizes lackluster innovation in current processes and products and pushes the envelope to imagine things that aren’t just better but may have never before been seen.
- The Conscious Capitalist, who calls out unethical or self-defeating practices and challenges the organization to always profit and perform with purpose.
- The Anarchist, who disagrees with the mantras of an organization and want to reinvent corporate ethos.
- The Tinkerer, who ceaselessly dabbles with new models.
- The Nonconformist, who shuns the normal and the routine.
It was at this point, and the following admonition that we must make change a core competency of our business that let me know there was real “meat on the bones” of this book. The book really grabbed me in Chapter 2, and never let go. It was a surprising turn into what honeybees can teach us about a connected, interdependent world—about how they work together in teams and communicate creatively, and constantly, through movement, and what lessons can take from that:
Today, [when] we are all as connected as honeybees in a hive and dependant on each other for success, we can learn a great deal from the honeybees. Successful businesses today are lead by teams dedicated to the whole and in pursuit of a higher value than pure self-interest. Further, successful companies are single-mindedly dedicated to the pursuit of creative communication and telling stories that are focused on increasing the productivity and harmony of the community.
One surprising idea that I’ve been running into over and over again in the last year is that, as smarter digital technology increases its presence in our lives and businesses and connects us in ways never before possible, the most important qualities in business are increasingly the most humane ones:
In today’s business environment, self-interest is taking a back seat to group selection … businesses in the we-conomy favor different characteristics and traits in their workers than in previous times. Those who are able to demonstrate altruism, self-sacrifice, cooperation, and team spirit are more successful …
And just how much more creativity and artistry in business in being emphasized:
Just as the dance of the honeybees is central to the success of the hive, creative self-expression is a critical business competency today. … creativity is not just a peripheral function relegated toy our design department but should be infused throughout your organization as a whole.
Chapter 3 is all about Andy Warhol, whose “good business is the best art.” That seems blasphemous on one level, but the idea that we must become “artists of business” and infuse art into everything we do in business is one of the best ideas I’ve come across recently.
Art today is the ultimate vehicle for transforming a common commodity into a sought after treasure. Why? Because art transforms something that was once utilitarian into a vessel of engagement, like Warhol did for the Campbell’s soup can.
Try thinking about your products and services from an artistic point of view. What feelings do you want to evoke in your customers? What feelings do you not want to illicit? Understand the creative and emotional impact of everything you do when it comes to your brand and learn how to create experiences, messages, stories, systems, services, and products that express the essence of that artistic vision.
It goes beyond the soup can—beyond the product. It is the way in which you connect to others socially and create a community. It is about creating something for “we” instead of “me.” Warhol famously said he went from hand painting to screen printing because “hand painting would take much too long and anyway that’s not the age we live in. Mechanical means are today, and using them can get more art to more people. Art should be for everyone.”
Ironically, though the idea that “art should be for everyone” is still true, it has been flipped on its head. The factory model of production has yielded to hand made and one-of-a-kind. Or, as the title of Chapter 8 suggests, “Bespoke is Beautiful.” Today, art isn’t just for everyone, art in business should be made by everyone. As much as Warhol has to teach us about blending culture and commerce, the way it is done has changed. All things hand made, customized, or made to order are making a comeback, and our ability to accommodate that in business, to be flexible, to “Stay Small but Reach All” (the title of Chapter 9, and which you’ll find doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with business size) is an increasingly important attribute.
What Howard makes clear for me by the end of the book is that we’re not in an either/or combat between digital utopia and dystopia. And the future isn’t just coming; it’s here. And for all the ones and zeros and digital code woven into it, it’s also increasingly handmade, homegrown, and community based. Chapters 4 and 5 tell the stories of Silicon Small-Towns arising across America and across the world—areas in major metropolitan areas and outside of them—that are becoming hubs of innovation and reinventing themselves. Not all involve tech companies (Braddock, Pennsylvania offers a fascinating example), but they all leverage technology in smart ways to attract people, business, and investment.
Even if I found the book’s opening argument and conceit a little lacking—or just at odds with my personal point of view—there is a lot to chew on in this book, and it’s high points are as good as anything I’ve read this year. I couldn’t agree more that there is great promise, at this moment in history, to reimagine how we do business and construct our communities, social life, and work life around it, and Billee Howard goes gives us a lot of tools and ideas to make it happen in We-Commerce.
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books, and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.