Friday, July 28, 2006

Art and Entrepreneurship

When I was growing up, my father instilled in me the idea that art was frivolous. Spending time on art and music detracted from the important thing in life, which was working hard and making a living.

That world view was hard for me to shake. I would go to museums and look at paintings, and I would ask my companions "What good is art, really?" They would just look at me like I was a hopeless case.

One day I asked a friend this question, but instead of acting like I was hopeless, she replied, "Well, art helps you see the world in a different way. It gives you access to new possibilities that you did not see before."

This reply stopped me in my tracks. It was true. A good Picasso, Monet, or Kandinsky DOES cause you to think "Aha - I see it now!"

Today as I was looking at some of our projects on GlobalGiving, I was thinking that many of the project leaders - the real "Social Entrepreneurs"
- seem crazy to me. They are trying to tackle long-standing problems that many people think are intractable. But somehow these social entrepreneurs are making progress - often amazing progress.

I realized that the reason they are making progress is that they are artists. Compared to most people, they see different possibilities for the world. And they show others the same possibilities.

For them - and for me, now - this type of art is the most important thing in life. Far from being frivolous, this art is central to making this world a better place for everyone.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Opening Pandora's Box

Today in an internal meeting we were discussing how to help people - potential donors - find projects of interest to them. Currently we allow them to search by country and/or theme (e.g., environment). We are in the process of redesigning this to better emulate how people really search.

Jim Krejci, our CFO (who is by his own admission not a design guy), observed: "You know, Pandora has the right idea - you don't have to tell it what kind of music you like, you just tell it examples of songs or artists you like, and it takes it from there. "

I agree. Pandora is one of the few new services that has made it onto "autoload" in my firefox browser. It is a unique cross between iTunes and online radio.

If you have not used Pandora yet, you should check it out.

Monday, July 17, 2006

A Little History of the World

Sometimes you read a book that changes the way you see the world - and you wish you had read it decades before.

That is my reaction to A Little History of the World
by Ernst Gombrich.

Gombrich is best known for his book The Story of Art, which is widely used in university courses around the world. History was originally written -- for children -- by Gombrich when he was twenty-six years old in 1935. He completed the writing in an astonishing six weeks. He updated it and translated it into English himself in the late 1990s.

This book is a gem, not only for children, but for everyone.

One of my own beefs about history courses in school was that each class usually jumped in deep into a single place in time. For me, it was difficult to place any of this in context.

Gombrich's History does a marvelous job of putting events that span thousands of years into context. It is written simply, but not simplistically, and friends of mine who are PhDs in political science have loved it.

You don't have to agree with his interpretation of all historical events; in fact the book itself provides a platform from which you can later dive deep into any of the periods covered, and draw your own conclusions.

As Booklist notes:

In 40 brief chapters, Gombrich relates the history of humankind from the Stone Age through World War II. In between are historic accounts of such topics as cave people and their inventions (including speech), ancient life along the Nile and in Mesopotamia and Greece, the growth of religion, the Dark Ages, the age of chivalry, the New World, and the Thirty Years' War. Much of this history is told through concise sketches of such figures as Confucius, Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Jesus Christ, Charlemagne, Leonardo da Vinci, Napoleon, and Columbus.

Get this book - it is a delight.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Bricks and Mortar

The web has changed many business models and enabled us to scale many activities at low cost.

But we need to keep in mind that bricks and mortar are still with us, and that they often work just fine, thank you very much.

Here in Washington DC's U Street neighborhood, where GlobalGiving's offices are located, there is a bar/restaurant called The Saloon. A few years back, the owner took a vacation in several developing countries.

While travelling, he saw the huge needs - and huge opportunities to make a real difference at very low cost. So out of the profits of the restaurant, he started a foundation and started funding a few small development projects each year - a clinic here, a school there, etc.

This year, he decided he would reach out and see if any of his customers wanted to help fund some schools with him. So he started 'selling bricks' for $100 a piece. You pay $100 and he paints your name on a brick. He calls his program "Bricks for Schools."

I walked by there today and noted that about 75 of his customers have taken him up on his offer. Not bad at all.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Complexity and Simplicity

I am a late convert to Apple computers, having bought my first Mac only about 3 years ago. I thought that Apple users were just design snobs who valued form over function. And I thought that Steve Jobs was just the uber-snob for refusing to let other hardware makers design devices that could use his operating system.

I have changed my mind.

The Mac operating system - and associated software including iTunes - is beautifully intuitive. And what is better is that this intuitive software is so smoothly integrated with the hardware, including the computers and more recently the iPod.

This weekend while trying to watch the World Cup finals, I fumbled with 4 remote controls on my coffee table - one for the TV, one for the cable box, one for the Tivo, and one for the stereo sound system. All of the remotes are different, and the menus on each device are different. Ridiculous.

Recently I caved in and bought a Treo phone because I was tired of lugging both a Blackberry (which is great for email but a lousy phone) and a cell phone (which does not really do email).

Nice try, but the Treo is so clogged with different email programs, chat programs, etc., that it is a real pain to figure out. And that is true even though I have the Palm operating system, not windows.

If Apple were to make a TV system and a Treo-like phone, they would make a fortune. I am sure they are working on it.

This holds lessons for GlobalGiving, too.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Fun, Fast, and Free

Our goal at GlobalGiving is to enable donors to support any bona fide, quality project in the world - and, conversely, to enable any bona fide project in the world to seek funding from the global community.

Most projects on GlobalGiving are currently vetted by one of our project partners - a group of 40+ leading organizations with operations in 100 countries around the world.

We are now piloting a community-based vetting process, whereby the GlobalGiving community itself will be able to select new projects to be listed in the GlobalGiving marketplace. This initiative is called the GlobalGiving Open.

Voting in the GlobalGiving Open is fun, free, and fast. Plus you can even win an iPod if you predict the winners better than anyone else. Check it out and let me know what you think.