Last night I spent a few hours building my schedule for OpenCo in San Francisco next week. As I note on my site, it wasn’t easy – there are 135 or so organizations opening their doors to the public, and only 12 possible time slots to fill. It’s like going to a concert where scores of your favorite bands are playing, but there are only 12 stages. At any given time, you’re going to miss 11 of your favorite bands.
So I studied the companies carefully. I wanted to make sure I had an element of serendipity – I didn’t want to only see companies I had heard of. I wanted variety – I spend a fair bit of time thinking about adtech, media, and the internet, so I wanted to see some manufacturers, retail, and non-profits, for example. And I wanted to explore the interplay of the physical and the digital, which is the basis of a book I’m working on.
I’m quite happy with the list I ended up with (you can see it here), but I’m also satisfied by the process I went through – I considered more than 75 companies. I visited their websites, read about their missions and visions, and considered how they might fit into my two-day experience. Along the way, I was struck by some clear patterns driving this innovative ecosystem, which I thought worth sharing here. Some might be obvious, but it’s worth tying a well known trend to facts on the ground – and a thriving startup is a very good “fact on the ground.” Here they are:
1. “Making” is making a comeback. Rickshaw Bagworks makes bags, but they make them in a very “OpenCo” fashion – they can afford to be bespoke, because they leverage modern information tools, and the company has a deep held set of beliefs about the “why” of their craft: “we share a strong set of humanistic, environmental and social values that guide the way we conduct every aspect of our business.” The same could be said for TCHO Chocolates (founded by the folks behind Wired), sex toy maker CRAVE (a data driven, women-first business), dry goods maker Everlane, and Lit Motors, which is trying to reinvent the automobile. All of these businesses are manufacturers, but they feel like Internet startups.
2. “Sharing” is a robust business model. I’ll be visiting We Work, a shared workspace that values “doing what you love,” but there are oodles of others on the OpenCo lineup, includingOtherlab, Hatch Today, Rocketspace, Mad Valley, and more. The idea of “incubation” is as old as the Internet, but now it’s far more open – these spaces include access to expensive tools, people, software, and knowledge that previously were kept locked up inside institutions, inaccessible to a smart entrepreneur who lacked resources. These organizations realize that opening up means more innovation and more shared success.
Besides shared space and tools, there is of course the now well-understood idea of sharing consumer time and resources. Again, plenty of companies express this concept – most famously airbnb, but also yerdle, Sidecar, and RidePal. All of these companies would be impossible with the Internet, but they are also more than just “Internet startups.” They are part of a movement toward a new social contract between people – a contract made possible through data and networks.
3. The old school is learning new tricks. If you’re a patron of the arts, you might think innovation is not your cup of tea. You’d be wrong. SF Symphony, SF Opera, ACT, and SF MOMA, where I’ll be visiting, are all “OpenCos,” among many other arts organizations. All of them are re-inventing themselves to adapt to a new world. I think what we consider to be “The Arts” will be dramatically different ten years from now, and we can trace the origin of these organizations evolution to the era we live in today.
4. Transparency makes markets. The more information that is available in a particular market, the more robust that market grows. At least, that seems to be the lesson of a group of companies at this year’s OpenCo. The aforementioned Everlane bases its business on “radical transparency” around its supply chains, Chairish makes markets in home decor,HomeJoy reinvents the cleaning service, Hotel Tonight reveals real time inventory in the lodging business, as does Stubhub for tickets, Betabrand makes markets in brand prototyping and creation, Eventbrite is – thought of another way – a real time Google Maps for human gatherings. None of these businesses existed ten years ago, most didn’t exist five years ago. Why are they here now? Because data and networks set information free.
5. Where physical meets digital, value is created. Related to many of these trends, but worthy of its own mention, is the idea of physical objects being turned into data, and in the process, becoming something new. That’s the magic behind sharing of cars, homes, and other hard goods, but it’s also what’s driving the reimagination of health (Rock Health), construction (Project Frog), Energy (Net Power & Light), and many others.
As you can see, there are so many fascinating companies reinventing our economy, and all of them are OpenCos – they want to change the world for the better, they want to open their doors to new ideas and new partnerships, and they want to share their ideas with you. I hope you’ll consider coming to the conference – it’s open to all, and free of charge. And if you’re not in San Francisco, let me know. We’re expanding this series all over the world, and we’d love to partner with you to make it happen in your city. See you out in the modern working city some day soon!
Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images