Your business isn't yours

by ~tocwex, published on

For the ten thousand years of history before the internet, if an entrepreneur built a brick and mortar business—a general store, a blacksmith’s workshop, a widget manufacturering factory—they could touch and feel and deeply understand what they owned, and what was dependent on others. The encroachments that did exist were intuitively understood: the king could come take whatever he wanted, the tax collector needed his due, the invading band of outsiders were going to try to pillage, etc. And even for the things that were managed through a network of relationships and contracts, say, a promise to deliver a shipment of materials sometime in the future, had a level of human interaction and consideration that could be understood how they were presented on their face. This was because interactions between entities were largely transparent to the participants, carried persistent reputational influence, and weren't intermediated by a black box of technologies and interwoven dependencies. ​ Moving into the digital age, the nature of business interactions have changed drastically, and yet entrepreneurs tend not to have updated their intuitions to keep pace with the actual mechanisms of ownership. In some sense, there are very few business 'owners' remaining in the world, and rather there are people who steward businesses that they believe they own but over which they actually have very little control. This mechanism started out slowly: huge companies depending on computers that they would lease from manufacturers and which would come with recurring maintenance contracts. This dependency offered a trade off that seemed so obviously worth it that only a fool would pass on the increased productivity. This perhaps transitioned into running a complicated server in some closet of an office space, with a dedicated IT guy that does a bunch of things opaque to the rest of the organization. And now... now there is almost inevitably in every business a giant rat's nest of SaaS subscriptions, End User License Agreements, compliance policies, and self-referential contracts which include some clause along the lines of 'subject to change arbitrarily and without notice'. In short, if you are running a business in the 21st century, it is probably the case that YOUR BUSINESS ISN'T YOURS. ​ Let's be clear, any sufficiently advanced organization is never going to get away from depending on people and interactions outside of itself in order to deliver the best solutions to customers, and specialization is an amazing feat of human society, but the point here is about how YOUR INTUITION IS WRONG that your business is yours. ​ Everything you think you own is probably attached to an EULA or Terms of Service that contains clauses that nobody but the lawyers who wrote them have ever read. Your social presence, your email server, probably even your website are tangled up in this mess. And if you have built the core of your business on top of Amazon, or Walmart, or some other MEGACORP's API and you get big enough for them to pay attention to you because you are providing a great service to customers, are you going to get a sweet payout? No, you aren't in a great place to get acquired; you are dead and you should kneel before your overloads and ask for the scraps of the enterprise they are about to cannibalize. Maybe they'll be nice and give you a senior director role managing the shell of your former life's work. Why does this dynamic occur? Because they can turn off your endpoints with a flick of a switch, pull it in house, and you can do nothing to stop them. Because unlike you, they do own your business (even though you haven’t sold it to them yet). ​ Of course, the fact that you—and so many others—have outsourced or lost operational control over so much of your business comes with a lovely list of downsides; to name a just a few:

  • Centralization creates incentive risks (see all the weird shit that MMANG are doing to implement large scale social manipulation, not to mention Vanguard and Blackrock's plays into ESG and 'stakeholder capitalism')
  • Your ability to say 'no' to changes to your business that conflict with your will is reduced
  • It makes the human connection between service providers and customers one fraught with middlemen who spy on you and sell your data
  • It generates a feedback mechanism that is incapable of checking itself, slowly wandering it's way toward paperclip optimization instead of orienting towards human action or flourishing.
  • etc etc etc. Try coming up with some on your own, it's not all that hard. ​ And maybe these are catastrophizing the situation. That might be a fair point, but how about a smaller example of life's minor annoyances:

What is this, you might say? This is the documentation for the IsProject parameter from Quickbooks online for the Customer object and for some obtuse reason it is read only. What does this mean in practice? It means that you cannot use an outside service or application, i.e. your CRM, to create a new customer and job within your accounting software and therefore have to manually take this action if you want to track your client arrangements as Projects within quickbooks. Are there workarounds? Sure, but they come with trade offs on the UI side of things because you are a captive audience. And if Intuit decides one day that they want to change all this and give you a massive operational headache, that's their business (and what you thought was your business). But this is just one of many experiences that continually stack up and cause endless pain and discomfort. ​ The correct reaction to this, though, is not becoming a Luddite, or being defeatist about how MEGACORP is eating the world and will probably ultimately turn you, your children, and your Tesla into a paperclip. Fighting technological advancement is a fools errand, whether it comes in the form of legislating restrictive ownership of firearms (as a fundamentally 100 year old technology) in a world of hyperinformation networks and distributed manufacturing, or a more classic attempt to 'RETVRN' to the land and pull some sort of Amish 'live the rest of your life without a lightbulb' move. Why? Because life is an arms race and retreating from change not only means giving up your own future, but it means that you are ok sacrificing the rest of humanity to some creepy Mark 'VR-headset-metaverse' Zuckerberg, Bill 'eat-the-bugs' Gates, Jeff 'live-in-the-pod' Bezos future. Don’t do that. ​ Instead, you need to rework your understanding of ownership for the 21st century. If ownership of your money is by way of running your own bitcoin node and holding your own private keys, then ownership of your business needs to be around controlling and understanding the data, computation, and digital interactions that form the core of your value proposition to the world. In many ways, this will be unique to your skillsets, life experiences, and target market. But in many other ways it is fairly standard, particularly for any sort of client services business. There are six core elements (after a baseline of Identity & Access Control, and Communications Channels) that are fundamental to any digital services business, each with their own areas of essential operations that should be understood, owned, and interactive in order best execute your will as a business owner:

  • Accounting & Finance; covering bookkeeping, financial reporting, contracts, banking, and payments.
  • Security & Compliance; enabling secure file sharing, internal policy documentation, and automation of compliance obligations.
  • Delivery Operations; providing external client communications, project management, progress reporting, task tracking, and time tracking.
  • Talent Management; unifying external reputation tracking with internal profile management, team onboarding, best practices, wikis, vendor agreements.
  • Sales Operations; actionable customer relationship management, integrated case studies, proposal development tooling and reference materials.
  • Marketing & Discovery; presenting outward organizational brand, content marketing, and other marking messages through web publishing and supporting word of mouth discovery. ​

Currently, most businesses have been sold on offloading these responsibilities to QuickBooks / Microsoft 365 / Google Cloud / Hubspot / Asana / Workday / Zoho / Dropbox... the list goes on... in favor of 'focusing' on their unique Product Creation and Service Execution. But this is increasingly risky in a highly iterative world, and builds your operation into a expensive, complex, obfuscated mess of admin panels and other people's servers, any of who's changes could cause your house of cards to come crashing down. Instead, the above six areas should be a stable foundation that you truly own, upon which your organization can depend while it iterates from product to product and client service to client service. ​ Of course, here is where we shill Urbit as the place where building these things into the stable foundation for running human scale businesses is actually possible. But more on that later, as long as I've opened your eyes to the fact that your business isn't yours, I have sparked the ember that will get you thinking about where to steer your ship.