Describing to others how Citizen Agency has become successful has been difficult. Mostly it's because we couldn't really pinpoint it. We don't do anything that conventional wisdom would say could lead to success. We didn't have a business plan. We refuse to use any traditional ways of marketing/advertising. Our website pretty much sucks. We don't even keep our company blog up to date. Half the time we are out, we forget to take business cards. We don't keep track of hours. We don't have a process (patented or not). We are clueless when it comes to prioritizing. And we don't have any business goals. We don't get back to people very fast. We turn down big, lucrative contracts. We give more away than we keep. We don't really care too much about growth. We value our leisure time over efficiency.
Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? Yet...
We have more potential work than we can handle on a regular basis. We've never gone into the red (oops...wrong color!). We live amazingly great lives in the 2nd most expensive city in the US. We get to travel all over the world. We know people in almost several countries we can call friends (people who we could have dinner with or who will show us around). We are successful in exactly the way we measure it: a community of support, sustainable lifestyle and constant personal growth.
And one of the things we've learnt is something incredibly counterintuitive to current North American culture: the more we give away, the better we do.
When I make statements like, "It all balances out in the end," I don't mean that I buy person A a meal and the next time person A buys me a meal. I don't mean that the volunteer work we do will generate leads, either. There is no obvious returns on investment...no clear reciprocal cause and effect of what we do. And I didn't understand what was so powerful about that until I started reading The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (thanks to Austin Hill).
Gifts Gain Value Through Circulation
In The Gift, Lewis Hyde explains through several folk tales and anthropological studies that the Gift Economy is not one of reciprocation at all. In fact, this obligatory reciprocation has sprouted from the idea of trade in our current market economy. A gift is not, in fact, a gift unless it continues circulating. So, I buy lunch for person A, then person A gives away her last $10 to person B, who uses it to buy sandwiches, which he shares with person C, who is now well fed enough to get creative and paint that amazing piece of art, which she gives to person D, who is so inspired by that art that he donates it to the local artist community, who displays it in their community garden, which many walk by to admire, one of whom decides to donate some money to a local neighbourhood beautifying project, which builds a spectacular park where I can now enjoy reading in, which will lead to all sorts of wonderful things.
The gift, as it moves along, actually becomes more and more valuable. In my example, a gift of lunch from me could turn into a large improvement in my community, but in really basic terms, the very nature of the gift is to continue to grow in value as it gets passed along and the increments don't tend to be felt as burdens to the person passing the gift along, either as it is a natural process. Remember the story of the guy who 'Traded up' the paperclip for a house in Saskatchewan? Well, that's kind of the idea...each 'trade' became a simple increment between a red paperclip to a whole house. And, at first glance, it may not seem like a very 'gifty' experiment (since only one guy got the house), but Kipling, Saskatchewan couldn't be happier about the press and the sheer craziness of the act has sprouted many interesting copycat stories, re-ignited the swap industry and inspired many, many people to go out and try fantastic, crazy things.
As the paperclip story is passed along, it gives pleasure to all that are told it and status to those who tell it as well (storytelling is truly a gift). It's the gift of possibility.
Instant Gratification Isn't Part of the Gift Economy
We never really think about what we are going to get out of something we are giving, whether it is time or money or ideas or support. We do think about whether these gifts align with our own values, how the community will benefit and if we can afford to do it (we are definitely not martyrs and feel we can do better work if we can feed ourselves). I think this is a key point. So many companies will donate time, resources and money to something if they can establish a clear ROI. They'll ask for a certain number of 'impressions' (logos, banners, etc.) or connections or a better public image.
Take BarCamp sponsorships, for instance. We've always insisted that sponsorships should work as follows: 1. companies can either sponsor a meal or donate a maximum of $250 cash, 2. companies don't get any banners, logos, speeches or other 'impressions', 3. companies who sponsor are encouraged strongly to participate (or send representatives to participate) in the BarCamp, leading a session or just being there, getting involved. #3 is the most important point of all. Sure, the $250 is nice to have and feeds the troops, but we would rather lead the troops to the local Deli to buy their own sandwiches in lieu of someone's participation time.
So many companies don't understand this. It's easy to throw money at an event, put up a banner and check that off their list of 'good deeds done', but it doesn't contribute to the conversation. It doesn't change culture. It doesn't build relationships. These take time...not money.
Our good friend, David Crow, who was one of the people who led the BarCamp revolution in Toronto just recently joined Microsoft. At first I was a little skeptical about his move, then he described a recent interaction with another city throwing a BarCamp where they solicited him for a Microsoft donation. David agreed, but only if he was participating.
David understands that his participation is worth way more than Microsoft's money. The money is a transaction, his presence is a connection.
When you buy a pair of shoes from Bata shoes, you exchange money for the shoes directly. Very rarely does that transaction create a deeper relationship with either the company or the shoe salesperson (unless they are amazing, but even then...I'll explain later on). But when someone you meet gives you a gift, a deeper bond emerges. The more personal the gift, the deeper the connection (as long as it is not given as a device of control or obligation, which I probably won't get to in this post).
You may have experienced this even in market economy transactions. You order a t-shirt from Threadless and when it arrives, you open the package to find 'extras' - little gifts in the form of stickers and postcards and buttons. In a non-market transaction, a gift given by a friend becomes more dear. The picture frame you were given reminds you of her every time you look at it. An unexpected bouquet of flowers not only tells you that he is thinking of you, but also connects you deeper.
Think of gifts passed down through generations, too. Both the connection and the growing value of the gift collides in your great-great grandfather's pocket watch. Through generations, you are bonded more closely with an ancestor.
Gifts from strangers can hold weight, too. Someone holding open the door for you or helping you with your load connects you to an unknown person, even temporarily. Of course, living in the market economy has made us weary of accepting actual gifts as we always suspect a reciprocation or exchange is being required, but on those rare occasions where someone offers a gift unconditionally, their memory is permanently transplanted into your experience. This is true for both the giver and the recipient. I gave a coat to a freezing man years ago. I could still tell you what he looked like. I remember how I felt afterwards and how I felt so great that I called up a friend I had been fighting with to apologize.
Gifts Stick With You
You don't need to have a whole lot to give. The fallacy is that, if you give, you are then without.
My experience has been the exact opposite. I've found that the more I give, the more I gain. No, it's not instantaneous or even necessarily monetary.
Citizen Agency is built on a mixture of the market and the gift economy. Obviously, the market economy comes into play with our consulting practice. We give time, support and energy to our clients and they pay us for that. Clients want goals and plans and some sort of equivalent value for the money they pay. But the gift economy part of our business comes in how we have been successful. We grow because we give.
Chris gives so much of his time to new entrepreneurs and to web standards work -- so much I sometimes have to pull him back on it and get him to log in those wireframes or similar task. I spend time and energy in my communities like coworking and encouraging the many young women in technology who reach out to me. We both volunteer our time and energy to projects like Net Squared, the Sunlight Foundation, Creative Commons, Freecycle and a variety of other non-profits. We offer an inexpensive (and free for some) community space and hire people to make sure it is available and sufficient for use by any group that needs it. We constantly connect people we meet to others we meet so that they can go further. We travel all over the world, most of the time at our own expense, to assist and encourage Coworking, BarCamp and other local global communities. We do all of this without really thinking about what we could get in return. Personally, I just get a high from doing it. Maybe it's the Cancerian in me, but seeing others benefit from connections I make or advice I give is high reward.
But somehow it all comes back tenfold. It comes racing back at us with so much more than we could ever give. It's almost embarrassing at times how much we get out of it all.
For those who say this isn't scalable or transferable, take this into consideration. Less than two years ago, I was some chick working as a New Media Marketing Manager at some HR association in Ontario. Yeah, I had ideas and a bit of experience under my belt, but I was known to 5 people and one of those 5 was my Mom. Chris? Well, he's the braver one. He came out of the gate with crazy ideas and a total lack of regard for the market economy 'norms'. He taught me to embrace my own crazy ideas and go for it. But even Chris came out of obscurity not long ago. He moved to San Francisco and knew 3 people.
We both started simply...giving a little and playing along with "the rules" more. But as we moved along, we liked giving more than playing along with the rules...plus, the rewards were enormous! (but not the point) And it became addictive. Hell, we don't really have much to give money-wise, but we knew we could give more of our time and experience. And wow, we found out that social capital is worth way more than money (and actually multiplies itself as you give it away).
And I start to think about this possibility: what if everyone started to act this way? If the world defaulted on generosity and the gift economy was given as much value as the market economy (but not a monetary value), what would happen? And we really think that the best way to make this happen is to just keep spreading this through example...and maybe pushing those clients we give up on too easily a little harder. And maybe we could put these theories into some more solid practice so that those who are scared of these hippie-sounding ideas could actually start to implement them into their businesses and lives and start to see the rewards themselves.
So, this is also something much bigger that I'm planning to talk about as part of my book, which I will provide the outline for at some point in the near future. I really believe the idea of the gift economy is going to play a big role in the future. We just need to wrap our heads around how we fit it together with the market economy in a way that balances the two sensibly.