Reinventing Business
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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Trip Report: San Francisco, Istanbul

Recently I've been wondering whether some trips are worth the effort -- especially international trips with the long flights and jet lag. I just got back from a trip that answered that question with an unqualified "yes!" It was one of the more amazing trips I've been on, and inspires me to seek more learning adventures.

Even though I had just been in California earlier this year, my nephew was getting married in Ventura so I drove (again) to San Diego (where I grew up) and took my Dad up to the wedding, then continued North, where the original plan was to spend time with my friend Daniel (who designs my book covers, among other things) and do some startup coaching. But Daniel (also an actor) got a last-minute call for an audition in LA that week, which threw a monkey wrench in everything and annoyed me for an hour or so. Then I got annoyed at being annoyed ("attached to outcome") and changed my plan to my default fallback for vacation-like experiences in California: a workshop at Esalen.

I got the last spot in a workshop taught by Joe Cavanaugh, a master of improv consciousness-raising. Which is to say, he figures out what you need by interacting with you, in the moment. Just watching Joe work was worth the price of admission, but that was just the beginning. The whole thing was amazing, one of the best (of the many) experiences I've had at Esalen.

And perhaps it was that workshop that opened me up even more for the rest of the experiences: the conference in Budapest (described here), a trip to visit friends in Istanbul (a new place for me), and an additional week in San Francisco.

Istanbul was more exotic than I could imagine. It felt like the crossroads of everything, the closest thing to a real-life version of the world described in Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. I had a tremendous advantage as a visitor -- I was able to stay with friends who were finishing a two-year teaching stint there. My hosts showed me what it felt like to live in Istanbul, and knew all of the best restaurants and places to go, how the ferries worked, all things I would have had to slowly and tediously discover on my own.

Upon my return from Europe, I spent time with my friend and book-cover-designer Daniel Will-Harris. On my second night back we went into San Francisco for Daniel to perform in a musical-improv group, where the improvisers not only make up a story, they spontaneously make up and sing songs. It was better than a lot of musicals I've seen (although I played "Rapunzel's Prince" in "Into the Woods," I'm ultimately not a fan of musicals). It's quite impressive to see the kind of creativity that happens when people push themselves to the edge.

Daniel has also been working on a new story-creation workshop based on the techniques he's been using to create these stories. I've been helping him design his workshop, based on my own experiences in taking workshops.

In the process of helping I've come to realize that I want to start designing my own workshop, which will be something quite different than the workshops I've done in the past (those were predominantly programming and software design). This workshop will reflect the kinds of experiences which lead me to writing this blog, and also discovered through this research. In particular, I want to focus on experiences that change perspective -- rather than try to convince someone through words, create experiences that you come away from thinking "Oh! The world is different than the way I thought it was!" Yes, this is very ambitious, but it's also something that I can see doing for a very long time, evolving all the while. And the experience of giving the workshop is something that I can imagine as endlessly intriguing and stimulating. Discovering this feels like an important milestone.

While working with Daniel, I suggested that we work on the website for his workshop. He reacted with surprise, saying "that's the kind of thing I tell other people when I'm working with them -- but I didn't think of it for myself!" Daniel is a master designer (his watches are sold in the New York Museum of Modern art, for example) so watching him work is always an education. He used a new system called Wix which I'm very impressed with, and Daniel likes it so much he's talking about moving his main website to it (independently, an artist friend in town has also started using it). Wix is the first system I've seen that feels focused on the design and content vs. making you think about the underlying technology (yes, Wordpress was a step in that direction, but it's now as much of an impediment to mentally switch into "Wordpress mode"). Even though I created my own site from the ground up, I find it hard to maintain because of the mental shift required from content to implementation. Basically, making a small change is never a quick fix. Unless I find something better, I'm likely to change my own site to Wix.

While in San Francisco, I was able to visit two more coworking spaces. The first was WeWork Soma; WeWork calls itself "the physical social network," which reinforces my theory that nobody needs the network and table space provided by coworking -- they are instead paying for the social experience. Although WeWork seems to do a good job of this, I couldn't see that much of a difference with NextSpace, who also support the connections between participants. The general trend of coworking is, to me, the most interesting thing: people are creating a new way of working, and the results are primarily emergent rather than known or planned.

ImpactHub is an example of this: it is a coworking space which intentionally produces social startups by creating a space for like-minded people to gather (another threat to MBA schools, who claim that as their primary benefit). Bill Venners and I visited this very nice space and saw socially-minded people coworking in common spaces, and the companies that had formed working in surrounding offices. I also saw this "coworking-into-startups" model at the CoLabs Incubator in Budapest, and I think it might be a very good candidate for the approach we use for the incubator space in Crested Butte. One advantage is that you can start right away with coworking, rather than having to immediately start with incubated companies. Then you nurture and evolve the companies as they organically emerge (I suspect I'll learn more about this emergence during the upcoming Startup Weekend in Aspen).

The trip finished with a presentation to the SF Scala group (video here and  slides here). James Ward had mentioned to the group's organizer, Alexy Khrabrov, that I was going to be in town and Alexy contacted me and asked me to speak. Since I was driving, it was easy for me to extend my trip and do this. It turned out to be a chance to give the presentation that I should have given at Craft -- there I would have titled it "Do Languages Matter?"