Help Others Thrive

Helping others to thrive sounds lovely and idealistic, right? Turns out to be hugely practical.

If you are developing social software and looking for investors, you can be sure they are going to ask how you are building community. Who has done this well? Those who created a space for others to thrive.

I was recently reading Power of Pull. They tell a wonderful story, and John Hagel tells this story when he speaks too, about the industry shift to container shipping. A guy running a trucking company built from the ground up realized there had to be a better way to ship things. He designed shipping containers, and he patented it. Only he opened the patent to everyone. Then he convinced all the players in the system of the benefits of using these containers to make shipping easier and more efficient. The net result is that he evolved the market, did well financially, and probably made the cheap transportation of goods that led to globalization possible. Industry shifting.

When we look at the well scaled social websites such as facebook and twitter, we see a similar creating of shared space with a small corner of that space being profit for the creator of the space. Facebook’s apps allowed other people to make a profit on top of their application. Twitter enables a whole market of vendors, applications, advisors, “experts” to make a living on top of their platform. Viola… other people come to play. Apple and Android with their apps markets do this as well.

Create a space for a collective. Select a small tangible and profitable corner of it that respects the free flow of the community while allowing you to collect a “tax” for high-end service in the collective.

A lot of open-source software also follows this model. Allow others to play and add and evolve the collective space while charging for a subset of activity in that community. Getting this right is of course harder than it may sound. It doesn’t work at small scales. Communities are highly sensitive about what is owned, controlled and profited from. Revenue may come in the form of voluntary contributions or pay for service forms. And it can be much more difficult to control the flow – you may have to support the community until it reaches significant scale to support you back. Whereas usual fee for service models allow you to restrict service if fees are not sufficient for support, these community spaces don’t have easy on-off switches. You have to trust.

And thus, for success, you see two things. One, that they start with small or focused collectives and then open up to larger and larger communities as investment allows for expansion. And two, with significant promise, they take in large amounts of funding with years of delay expected between investment and payout. They can be slow capital.

How can you create a play space that helps others to thrive? And how, by doing so, can it feed back to help you thrive over time?

*** This post is part of the series for the Breakthroughs book. Please see Contribute to Book for more. ***