I bet you could prove me wrong, but I have come to FEEL that all institutions rot and hollow out.
I met the founder of a school that will take somebody with no programming experience and get them hired by a startup as a coder in just weeks. They’ve delivered on this promise every time to date. If you take a job through them (the jobs are cool) the school even refunds you part of your money. They offer scholarships too. It’s not totally transparent but it’s relatively small and appears to be a well-managed and subjectively good business.
When the founder heard about the way we handle money (as if it is the students’ not the school’s), he said: I’m a capitalist. If you believe in what you’re doing you shouldn’t be ashamed to make a profit. If you deprive yourself of resources you compromise your ability to deliver on your value-proposition. More resources might mean teaching more students, or just continuing to teach.
You walk right out of the super-clean officey-type campus and right in front of you is the Wall Street bull.
Advising us vaguely on the future, he said that he thinks we have three options: become a non-profit so that we can take full advantage of grants, donors, and sponsors (which are difficult for a technically for-profit school to pull off); run it like a business with a full-time staff, teachers, and space; or run it as something different from or perhaps less than a “real” school: maybe just night classes and weekends.
I don’t disagree with his points.
But for us non-profit status might be more overhead than I could stomach. If it took even one full-time employee to oversee paperwork I would die a bit inside. I don’t want non-profit paperwork to be anyone’s job here. We didn’t need it to start — hell, we didn’t even have a bank account! — why should we need overhead to continue on?
To get some godforsaken startup lingo off my chest: profit creates a buffer which creates institutional inertia which builds stability which allows for focus which improves everyone’s ability to deliver on a value-proposition that I’ve already forgotten if we even have. For an experimental school [profit|buffers|inertia] are a double-edged sword. What happens when one day you realize you’re propelled by nothing but inertia to keep de-liv-er-ing val-ue? What when your ideas have become stagnant? What when your ideas are yet-to-be-conceived?
I don’t remember whether it was a nightmare I had or a story somebody told me, but: several collaborators became massively popular, so much so that demand for their work far outstripped their ability to supply it. They brought on an army of assistants and interns and still couldn’t meet demand. Perversely, meeting demand for their work only created more demand for their work. They stumbled upon an idea to appease ravenous collectors: selling work they hadn’t yet made. Not only was it crazy, but it worked. They sold years of promissory artworks. They took over the whole floor of a sunlit building and built a luxurious studio. I imagine that they never have to worry about money again. But the work is (by all accounts outside of their circle of rich, ignorant patrons) BAD. Even the artists are bored. You can see it in their eyes. To make matters worse: things are tense. Members of the group whose names weren’t on the paperwork began to peel off to do better work. The collaborators don’t talk easily anymore and have taken to managing separate aspects of the practice. They’re, in some ways, trapped. Their comfortable, boring, tense life is funded by dollars drawn from work they have yet to make together. There’s nobody driving this train! And there’s no easy exit.
So what’s an alternative to this? Not taking advance money for things you have yet to make? Being careful not to make too much of a profit? Awkwardly considering ephemerality at every decision point? Embracing a sporadic existence?
A businessman approached with the idea of a sporadic institution might be see it as something on the brink of collapse or failure. That’s because the ephemeral institution’s default state is not growing, profitable, comfortable, boring, tense inertia…but: potential energy. A resting network of individuals, resources, and ideas awaiting the charter of its next constellation.
There’s a weight to having resources and a freedom in forcing yourself to shut down and start over early and often. You can tell you’re thinking in terms of Return On Investment if that sounds backwards to you.
Starting something is hard enough, so it’s scary to consider building a framework in which you intentionally shut yourself down like clockwork to rehustle as if you’re just starting out. Self-sabotage?! Self-inflicted trauma!? (The warnings of smart and kind but still capitalists.)
Again, this sounds crazy, but: if you’re liked well enough, you won’t be able to run fast enough to outpace support. The gradual decline into comfortable, boring, tense, rich, ignorant, trapped — at some point forever imposed on you.
The-most-fucked-up-thing-of-all: time accrues. No matter how small you try to stay fiscally, bureaucratically — time grows you up. Simply by virtue of having existed for consecutive minutes, months, years you’re expected to legitimize (as if you didn’t start off running from its logical conclusion): a storage unit, taxes, insurance, payroll, audits, correspondence. Whole industries around not letting experiments stay young forever.
Maybe in a year there’ll be a staff of 25 and franchises from Shanghai to Dubai. I can only see that kind of future when I squint beyond the horizon of some twisted alternate universe. But I’ve lived it before, so when I meet with our accountant it literally hurts to think I’ll live it again.