Communities are conduits of knowledge

It’s embarrassing for an entrepreneur to admit their side project is about to make them bankrupt.

A  few years after I moved to London, I was struggling with this business  idea of digital signage for hotels. I was treading water, able to keep  the business going by taking on random software and website development  contracts to cover the bills.

I  won a spot at a local incubator, which came with a desk in an empty  floor of a disused university building in the Elephant And Castle  neighbourhood, known for its muggings and nightclubs. Most of the  companies in the incubator were professional services, a few graphic  designers, a couple companies that made websites, and a restaurateur.  But there were a few entrepreneurs trying sell web-based software on  subscription.

We took no time helping each other spread down the grey-carpeted hallways into all the vacant, neon-lit offices.

The  incubator was run by a few life-long small business advisors. They were  forward-thinking, and started the incubator before the UK government  shut down its network of business advisories. Their promise was that  they’d connect us to international customers, but first we needed to  write lengthy business plans that they’d approve. In the meantime,  they’d help us with things like budgeting and cashflow management.

We  were different. Small businesses, yes, but with big plans to grow.  Somehow our advisors didn’t understand what was possible with internet  businesses.

But  Fridays at the local pub were always filled with inspiring stories and  encouragement. There were rumours that Apple or Nokia might make  something called a “tablet computer” and Facebook might actually grow to  500 million users. We’d trade books on marketing, and talk about  companies we’d discovered that had scaled quickly. We were fans of a few  ‘bootstrapped’ success stories — tech companies like 37 Signals, that  had grown big without investors, simply by building a simple but good  product worth paying for.

One  weekend, after a major customer delayed my digital signage project yet  again, I knew I couldn’t fight through the next week the same way. I  came into an empty office and started searching for new entrepreneurship  frameworks.

I’d  already heard of Alex Osterwalder, who’d written his PhD on business  models in Lausanne, and had a way to visualise and redesign them. He was  working on a crowd-sourced book, and had started a private online forum  for sponsors and contributors, one of those Ning sites that let you  build your own social network. Hundreds of people were signing up and prepaying, but the private community only had a handful of people contributing ideas.

I  found an entrepreneur called Eric Ries who was blogging about his  success with using Toyota’s manufacturing process on his chat software.  Even though one of his recent posts was titled, *Lo, my 5 subscribers,  who are you?*, his blog inspired a few interesting conversations in the  comments.

In  London, I found a small group of designers who were creating a movement  called User Experience (UX) Design for using design processes and  ethnographic research to help big companies — but were having trouble  getting taken seriously.

And  I found out about London’s epic hack-a-thons where big tech companies  like Yahoo and the BBC would open their doors and let coders play with  their toys.

These  communities were all disconnected, but somehow circling around the same  ideas. We each had different pieces to the same puzzle we were all  trying to solve.

One  of my website clients called, a public relations company for book  publishers. “There’s a book coming out called Rework, by these guys  called 37 Signals. Have you heard of it? Is there a market for it in the  UK? Should we take the project?”

This  was the chance to connect all of these isolated people I’d discovered.  If someone from 37 Signals came to London, it would be a big enough draw  to pull everyone else together. My incubator agreed to cover their  flight, so we were set to start.

We  called the event Leancamp, because of all the ideas we were stirring  together, the ideas from Toyota’s Lean methodology had the most in  common. The term “camp” was a nod to the Barcamp format, a multi-track  tech conference where the schedule is set by the attendees. We wanted a  way for all these groups could choose what to learn from each other.

But I had no idea what I was getting into.

After  50 tickets, I realised I needed real catering rather than pizza, but  that wouldn’t be a problem if we sold 20 more tickets.

Then  my incubator pulled out of the deal. I needed a new location, and to  cover a business class flight from Chicago to London. That meant selling  over 100 more tickets to cover the costs.

Great  Western Studios, a massive 3-story industrial building overlooking a  canal near Notting Hill was under construction. They agreed to host us  for free.

But a month before Leancamp, the construction still wasn’t complete, so I had to rent wifi equipment for the whole building.

The  week before, my bank account was drained and I was thousands in debt.  I’d found another sponsor but had to organise a loan because they  couldn’t pay up front. Thankfully, David Heinemeir Hansson, one of the  37 Signals founders, agreed to do a special workshop and put the  payments towards my conference costs.

On May 10th, 2010, the doors to Leancamp opened to 160 entrepreneurs,  designers, and coders. The building still wasn’t finished — but the  plywood floors, exposed lightbulbs and missing doors just made the  environment feel more exciting, like we were all building something new  together.

Full house! Photo credit: Chris Heilmann

UX  Designers picked up how Lean Startup tactics made their approach  compelling to corporates and entrepreneurs alike. And Alex’s Business  Model Canvas gave entrepreneurs a blueprint to turn vague ‘business  experiments’ into surgical tests.

Something  the designers explained made me see my digital signage business in a  new light — really observe your customers’ behaviour. My hotel customers  simply didn’t care enough about digital signage, and their behaviour  showed it. It was time to shut my business down.

Photo credit: Chris Heilmann

David  Heinemeir Hansson had his first conversation with with Eric Ries, a  debate that was largely about whether or not it was important to charge  customers from day one. While much of what they each had written seemed  to put them at odds, when they faced off in a debate in front of  entrepreneurs, context quickly became more relevant than dogma, and they  found themselves agreeing.

Entrepreneurs who had followed either David’s Bootstrapping or Eric’s Lean Startup approach also ran sessions.

This is where everyone else really started to understand these approaches in practice. Their discussions lasted for hours.

This is from a book we’re writing about Peer Learning. It also has stories about farming, university physics, and hip hop. Would love your feedback!

Salim Virani

Salim Virani

Founder of Source Institute. I've developed educational programs for some of the world's top-tier accelerators and business schools, like Seedcamp, Oxford, UCL and the Royal Academy Of Engineering.