Don’t Ask Me About My Business Model

Every time I talk to new people about any company I am working for, usually at a conference but living in the bay area it happens often enough on the street, too, the conversation unfailingly reaches the point where the person asks, “So, what’s your business model?”

Motherfucking damnit.

Yes, it is a company, it certainly has a business model, no, I don’t care to explain it to you. I work at companies where I get to write open source code, that should give you a damn clue to the fact that I might actually be more interested in what my company is doing than about how they intend to make money off of it.

Fuck you for judging what I do based on how much money it can make, fuck you for caring more about numbers in a bank than about doing something good for people, fuck you for making me answer your stupid question; ask somebody who cares. Money is a resource, not a goal.

Chris, I need a shirt: “Don’t ask me about my business model.” Black with white text.

Updated Aug, 14 at 23:30 There ended up being a bit of a conversation in the comments, check it out. I think by the end what I was really trying to say came out.

12 thoughts on “Don’t Ask Me About My Business Model

  1. while it is true that many MBA valley types will ultimately want to have an empty conversation about money and its relationships to your job/company, and that these conversations (depending on who you have them with) can be trite and materialistic – I think that after your youthful vitriol may want to reassess there relationship between what you do and what it can earn(i.e business model).

    Economics, that imperfect social science, or what Aristotle once called special justice (at least my translation of the Nicomachaean ethics ) is about how we collectively(socially and in a distributed fashion) make value judgements about worth. When I say worth I don’t mean money – money is simply a device for having that conversation about value, its a means to an end.

    So understanding your business model is about understanding how what you do, matters to the collective social mass around you, in their context, not yours. This is vital. It requires empathy and understanding for people that mostly do not share you interests skills or vernacular. In a real sense its architectural. Ultimately money, and a model that understands your work in relation to it is an attempt is an at generalization of social value and social choice. So while I am sure, that a young, smart, passionate guy, becomes annoyed by yet another seemingly meaningless conversation with someone wearing a braided leather belt asking about how you make $, I would hope that the next time you have that same conversation, you reconsider what it can truly mean, and how it is perhaps the most important, given our currently limited social ways of discussing such topics, question a creator of a tool for social utility and organization can ask.

  2. There is very much a type of person who will ask about what a product does, what is new about it, what was wrong with the alternatives, why I wanted to be involved. There is an altogether different type that will ask why it is better than what is already there, why they will want to use it, why anybody will care about it, and how it is going to be profitable.

    I had a conversation at OSCON with a couple guys working on some clever security-related project (the name escapes me at 3am, I’ll try to rummage for it later), and at some point they mentioned people asking what their business model was. Their response would be, “we’re just an open source project.” It seemed sad to me that this has become the outsider, that OSCON is a world of business models. The obscene price certainly plays its role, but even still I would hope for more projects that were “just open source projects.”

    You make a valid point when you describe the business model conversation as a way to have a conversation about worth with those who have few other ways of discussing such things, there are many situations where the only common factor is that we are both involved in tech, they to make money off of a lucrative industry, myself to do what I love. Yes, if I want to communicate with these people that is the best avenue through which to do it. I do not want to communicate with these people. They need to be there, and they are often great people, but I really have no interest in pursuing the topic any more than I have interest in talking about taxes. (I had to think for a while there because there are a very large number of things I would be interested in talking about and couldin’t think of any that were anywhere near as boring as finances… so i chose fincances)

    When I am at a conference like OSCON, or meeting tech people in the street, I hope they are the kind of person who wants to know which programming language I am writing my most recent project in, whether I have heard about the new features going into the next release of Rails and how long it will be before they can play with my product and give it to their friends. I have many, many better things to talk about than the lowest common denominator.

  3. yes i understand, but my point is slightly different. Business models are fundmentally about how value is distributed in an architecture. About how a tool can realign value beacaus eit proposes a different economic arrangement – Just “open source project” is an example of a business model. when someone make a claim at efficency or elegance of design, say for rails over j2ee, it is more than a technical argument, its an economic one. Given a problem space the social arrnagements enabled by the technology allow for elegance, and efficiency. This has to be reflected in somthing other than opinion. It requires an imperfect and explcit representation. It also requires that the value not be technlogically self referential -i.e. merley an aesthetic problem. Believe me, having been through the last .net bust I understand and agree that the “busines model” discusion can be an empty, even damaging thing when not tied to a physical reality represented by the material properties of a technology. But my point to you (friends have told me of your skill age and talent) is that I think the business model question is a requirement for you whether in the specifics of an ROI design choice such as choosing one progamming language over an other – or at a higher level of abstarction (fractal perhaps) defining how the aggregate design choices of a company propose to render value in complex adaptive social filter known as a market. I think the following qoute from Larry Wall applies here, espcially with regards to the open source community

    “Let me distinguish two different kinds of joiners. You have people who will join a movement and be totally gung-ho about it. That’s great. We need the cheerleaders.

    But that’s merely a form of tribalism. What we also try to encourage are the kind of joiners who join many things. These people are like the intersection in a Venn diagram, who like to be at the intersection of two different tribes. In an actual tribal situation, these are the merchants, who go back and forth between tribes and actually produce an economy. In theological terms we call them peacemakers. “

    I hope that this is differnet than a discussion about taxes ;-). I also hope that it is considered ssomething diffreeent than a discussion about the “lowest common denominator”.

    Anyway – can’t wait to see what your working on and its related possibility for business models 😉

  4. Sometimes people just want to know that whoever is writing you a check every month to work on the uber-cool thing is going to be able to continue to in the future. I’ve lost track of how many great products I used to use aren’t around anymore because they didn’t have a baseline of profitability, and all those cool people are now getting paychecks someplace else. I also want to know that whatever your business model isn’t going to be a bait and switch, luring me in and then slapping me with fees after I fall in love with it.

  5. Ivan: I agree that the more abstract version of the business model question can have a lot of depth, and perhaps if I were running my own company I would be more interested in talking about even the shallow version of the question, but I am not running my own company and I do not frequently get asked the deep question. If I had a friend, Boris or Matt for example, who asked the question, I would expect it to be a much more in-depth conversation, but I simply do not get into long-winded philosophical conversations about business models with the people who are asking me 98% of the time, nor would I want to unless they had the understanding and knowledge of the domain that Boris and Matt have, it is not the kind of question those 98% are asking.

    The economy that Larry speaks of in that quote is a much different beast than we are addressing here. Larry is referring to the trade between projects, the sharing and melding of resources, the establishment of channels through which communication and services can be maintained efficiently. Larry is talking about Mark Pilgrim’s Feed Parser and how it didn’t choose RSS or Atom but supported both, Larry is talking about people working on Rails writing patches to Ruby to get it installed on Mac OS X. Just because he uses the word economy does not mean he is referring to an individual project’s plans for monetary gain, the values to the market he speaks of –and that you are talking about — are not the values about which people are asking me.

    Matt: I would hope that person would say, “that’s great, how are you guys going to b eable to keep it up?” It is really a different question from the bottom line “I’m only interested in money so tell me why I should be interested in you,” and the small talk “I don’t really know anything about what you are doign so I’ll ask a question that I think makes me sound intelligent,” questions. I’m tired of appeasing the soulless and the ignorant, you would not be one of those were you to ask the question. Quite honestly I expect most of the time that you are well aware of the business models open to a given project without even having to ask.

  6. I think that a lot of people are skittish because of the dot-com bust, where people just blew lots of money making cool things without any consideration for how they would make enough money to continue making those things in the future. A new business based on open source software, to the uninitiated, could be another potential dot-com without a plan for the future. And the initated, like me, are interested in knowing how you plan to make money, because it’s something I’d like to be able to do myself someday 🙂

  7. +1 for Matt’s comment — the “right” people really do mean “that’s great, how are you guys going to be able to keep it up?” — they are just use a very focused vocabulary.

    And don’t worry, I’ve been explaining the business model to people.

    1. Make cool Internet open source stuff
    2. ?
    3. Profit

    Pretty easy, really.

  8. Wow, I know what you mean. I agree that some people that ask still might be worth talking to, but I agree most of them probably aren’t.

    You do seem to come off somewhat elitist, but I’m sure that doesn’t bother you. Do you ever confront these people with the impression they give you? Maybe try to enlighten them so that you can totally blow them off while giving a valid reason for doing so that they can sit and think about?

    “I’m trying to understand our world. I don’t deal with petty materialists like you.” -Max Cohen, Pi

  9. I think something about the notoriety of the internet business explosion has caused this annoying phenomena. It also drives me crazy that so many people feel completely comfortable asking what ones business model is, as if they can even have the skills to be a realistic judge. Sure a qualified friend or known contact asking is one thing and often I hope such trusted people do want to discuss it as the more minds equals the best chance of maximizing an offering. But when someone I don’t trust asks it’s akin to asking someone how much they paid for their house (another question some people seem to think isn’t a private matter.)

    The reason most people ask is because they are incredulous that a business they haven’t taken 1 minute to think about may actually be possible. If I’m starting a business and I’m risking my neck to make it happen can’t we assume I have a prety good plan for turning revenue out of it (either that or I’m so stupid there is no helping me ;)? When people I don’t know ask me my business model now, I ask them what their annual salary is. Of course no one wants to share their take home income with a stranger they don’t trust so why should I share my business model – which has taken thousands of hours to refine – with them.

    What I prefer to tell them is we’re about to break even and the future is looking bright ;>

    I’ve tried to be cool about this for the last six months, but it just kills me how banal people think such a sensitive question is.

  10. What a great conversation!

    What strikes me about this particular specimen of the “What’s your business models” question is its potential for being totally condescending. Again, as pointed out already, it depends on who is asking whom, but I can definitely imagine the scene on the street where someone, completely unaware of Andy’s talent or ability, or of the coolness and potential impact of Andy’s product, would ask the BM question as a teaser to confirm a snobbish suspicion that the whole idea is some misplaced effort of youthful enthusiasm, soon to wither and fade.

    One can neutralize this pretty quickly, though, with a counter question:

    “Well, that’s a tough one. What would your business plan be if you were in our shoes?”

    They’ll reveal themselves and their motivation in 3 seconds flat, and it’ll be clear whether it is a conversation worth pursuing.

  11. PS…. I love talking about business models. It hasn’t made me rich, yet, but I find it as interesting as the software itself. It’s just one more layer of the whole human-software-human interaction thingymajig, and it’s the whole thingymajig that is interesting, not just the foreach loops and recursive functions.

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