Ahoy, Matey! 826 Valencia Reinvents the Writing Center

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Becoming a pirate? 826 Valencia’s Pirate Supply Store in San Francisco has hooks to replace missing hands, captain’s journals, and even a leash for your monkey. Gear for aspiring pirates fills the space, but in the back of the store is something more fantastical — a writing center.

Founded in 2002 by Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and educator Nínive Calegari, nonprofit 826 Valencia helps under-resourced students ages 6 to 18 develop their creative and expository writing. Named for its street location in the Mission District of San Francisco, the writing center sees itself as a place, separate from school and home, where students receive one-on-one attention and think of themselves as writers. It’s become a supplement to the public education system in San Francisco, and with 826 National has taken its model to other cities.


In 2008, the nonprofit officially formed 826 National to support its other chapters. There are currently seven in the U.S. The writing programs are the same, but the whimsical storefronts are different in each city. 826LA runs a Time Travel Mart. Brooklyn’s 826NYC features superhero supplies. And the Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Institute fronts 826 Boston. A new location in the San Francisco’s Tenderloin, the city’s most densely populated neighborhood, will open in 2016. 826 National has also inspired similar projects in England, Ireland, and Italy.

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An open letter to Paul Graham

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image wikimedia foundation

Dr. Mr Graham:

You’re a smart man. I would love to read a revised essay from you on income inequality that takes into account four facts you seem to have failed to include in your analysis of the situation:

  1. Literally no one in America, save for a very few on the fringe, is talking about “eliminating income inequality.” People are seeking to and talking about reducing income inequality. No one believes that there should not be rich people. They do not want to “kill” you, literally or metaphorically.
  2. What people are talking about is a progressive income tax to reduce inequality. Amazingly, your essay on inequality only uses the word “tax” in the body of the essay a single time. If a billionaire is taxed 80% on the year he or she earns that billion, they will still be worth $200 million. And they are still free to start businesses and pursue wealth. They are still rich. They have not been “hunted” or “killed.” The crux of your argument — that “Ending economic inequality would mean ending startups” — is both a straw man (no one’s advocating eliminating income inequality completely) and untrue (people can still pursue whatever they want — they just have to pay more taxes on it.) No one wants to take the money you have away. You could still pursue being rich, and, indeed, you could still get rich. I don’t know TONS about your wealth levels, but if I extrapolate them from my own, and the successes you’ve had, I am willing to wager a large amount of money that in the world these people (including myself) envision, you would still be very, very rich.
  3. People want to take that money from the taxes and provide services so that everyone in America can get the same public services that — to extend your example — Larry Page got growing up in East Lansing, Michigan. You are partially correct when you say that “It’s not economic inequality per se that’s blocking social mobility, but some specific combination of things that go wrong when kids grow up sufficiently poor.” The “specific combination” is no mystery. For many of them, it’s that they also live in areas that are poor, and have low tax bases, and cannot provide the education and services at the same level as rich neighborhoods. So by taxing the wealthy and spending it on services, we can better ensure that the level playing field you allude to continues to exist.
  4. The pie metaphor you speak of is not crazy. There are different ways of looking at the “pie:” National income accounts (growing), money supply/purchasing (the money supply’s gone up, sure, and the value of money is relatively stable,) and the GDP-based purchasing power parity. So by one measure — the one you are presumably speaking of — the pie is growing. By a GDP measure, however, it is growing less and less every year. We haven’t had 5% GDP growth in over a decade. It’s been over 30 years since it hit 10%. Most economists believe that high-level GDP growth is a thing of the past, and we’re looking at 2–3% growth from here on out. So, by this completely rational view of the “pie,” it is, in fact, trending towards a zero sum game. This is not an irrational view.
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Don’t Read This If You’re A Pessimist

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This post is a book review, but it starts with a story from my past.

Way, way back, before San Francisco begat hip startups with nonsensical names, I found myself on the second floor of a near-abandoned warehouse on South Park, now one of the priciest areas of SF, but then, one of the cheapest. I surveyed the place: well lit in the front, but a shithole in the back. Detritus from years of shifting usage littered the ground — abandoned construction materials lurked in the poorly lit rear recesses, toward the front, where a wall of dusty industrial windows overlooked Second Street, a couch faced outward, and it was in this space I first met Louis Rossetto, founder of Wired and for all I could surmise, Willy Wonka’s twin brother from another mother.

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How To Save Capitalism From Itself

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Robert Reich’s Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few is a readable rant that — should you disagree with Reich’s central premise — will elicit eye-rolls and summary dismissal. But while his well-known political ideology (he served as Secretary of Labor under Clinton) is on constant display, I found Reich’s book both timely and important.

I am drawn to any work that posits a better way forward, and as you might expect, I agree with Reich far more often than not. You have to be willfully ignorant to pretend our current economic system is equitable (Reich argues we’re in the “second Gilded Age”) or capable of creating long-term increasing returns. And while many in our industry cling to libertarian fantasies in which technologic silver bullets solve our every social need, back here on earth we need to do better than pine for the singularity. Fixing income inequality and the loss of the middle class requires hard policy choices and a re-framing of the problems at hand.

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Climate Change Needs An Ozone Hole

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Way back in 1985 an unlikely coalition of world governments, business, and enlightened citizens did something extraordinary: Responding to the findings of leading scientists, they united in decisive action to address a looming and existential global climate threat.

That threat was a dangerous thinning of the Earth’s ozone layer due to society’s use of man-made chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Ozone, it turns out, protects the Earth’s surface from dangerous UVB radiation — which causes skin cancer, cataracts, and all manner of unpleasant ecological chaos.

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The State of the NewCo

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Welcome to the last NewCo Daily of 2015. We’ll be back January 4 to chronicle what NewCos are doing and start delivering a number of new editorial products (including one in January). It’s too early for us to run a comprehensive year-in-review piece (hey, we’ve only been publishing this newsletter since October) but today we’d like to look at the state of the basic unit of measurement for the NewCo: the company.

The NewCo Daily covers the organizations and the people in them trying to make meaningful change. Our founder John Battelle calls them companies on a mission, which is a subtle but important difference from being a company with a mission. Most companies have a mission. But companies on a mission are more likely to be open, driven by purposeful ideas, connected to their cities and communities, and connected to one another.

A report recently published by the JUST Capital Foundation investigates the role of the corporation in American society. It’s an impressive undertaking — more than 43,000 respondents — and we’ll address it in more detail in the coming year. But two data points jump out. One is that, across ideology and incomes, nearly 100% of respondents said measuring “corporate justness” is important. And no matter how JUST sliced the ideological pie, it never saw more than 50% of respondents say they trusted corporations. The desire to make businesses better is universal, and the belief that companies must earn our trust is strong.

Most important is what a company does, but what a company says has a great impact on its behavior. For example, if you’re on a mission, your mission statement has to be more than a series of rote bromides. NewCos like Patagonia (which we profiled recently) say what it believes upfront. Its mission statement: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” It captures both the idealistic and realistic reasons to build a business. Another NewCo, Warby Parker, says it was founded “with a rebellious spirit and a lofty objective: to offer designer eyewear with a revolutionary price, while leading the way for socially-conscious businesses.” A great mission statement says how a company will do well and how it will make good. It describes what it means to be on a mission.

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Slack Wants To Be the OS of Work

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There’s an argument raging among digerati right now whether Slack is a bona fide platform. One can’t argue, however, that Slack hasn’t become the central online workplace for more and more people, as its mission to make work more productive and more fun takes hold with more than two million people using it every day (roughly 25 percent of them on paid accounts).

The company’s announcement this week that it is launching a platform and funding it with both tools and money will make it that much easier for the company to lock in customers, since they will be able to interact with more and more apps from inside Slack, often via the rudimentary AI features of the service’s “bot.”

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Silicon Valley Won’t Always Be The Poster Child of Entrepreneurship

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The ever present debate around whether Silicon Valley will retain its crown as the most important tech hub got fresh fuel this past week, first from a piece by Adam Lashinsky (yes, it will), and then from a Financial Times report (sub. required) seemingly refuting his conclusion (no, New York wins!).

The research behind the FT report claims the most entrepreneurial cities in the US are, in order, New York, Boston, Providence, and then San Francisco. The FT headline — “How New York stole Silicon Valley’s crown” — leads one to believe that somehow the research was comparing Apples to Big Apples. Of course, it was doing nothing of the sort. In truth, the FT’s uncharacteristic click bait was comparing Salesforces to Sandwich Shops.

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Slack: Making Work More Productive and More Fun

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Stewart Butterfield did well on his first major entrepreneurial venture. His company’s initial product, a multiplayer game, never shipped, but Ludicorp, which he helped found in 2002, sold its next project, the pioneering photo-sharing service Flickr, to Yahoo in 2005. Butterfield stuck around Yahoo until 2008 and then returned to entrepreneurship as a founder of Tiny Speck.

As with Ludicorp, Tiny Speck started as a game developer. And as with Ludicorp, Tiny Speck’s launch game, Glitch, never caught on. However, an internal communications tool Tiny Speck built and used while developing Glitch, called Slack, has become one of the most popular business tools of the moment, one of the few explicitly business tools that has also taken off among consumers. Capturing some of the most useful elements of both email and messaging, while eschewing the bloat and unfriendliness associated with each, Slack has enjoyed massive success.

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Satya Nadella and the Microsoft Reboot

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Microsoft doesn’t have quite the money in the bank that Apple has (just under $100 billion as opposed to the more than $200 billion at Tim Cook’s disposal), but it has plenty to fund many, many years of experimentation as the Windows and Office cash cows slim down. The Steve Ballmer era at Microsoft was characterized by a protect-the-queen mentality that didn’t lose its grip until Satya Nadella succeeded him as CEO in early 2014.

It’s easy to denigrate some of the initiatives started or accelerated during Nadella’s tenure so far as the acts of a copycat, but the shift from “devices and services” has freed the Redmond giant to expand from its core while rethinking how it manages that core. When Microsoft has one of the best email clients running on Apple’s iOS, something profound has changed. Nadella is operating, in a no-longer-Microsoft-centric tech world, with interoperability on his mind.

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