Bob Young on Lulu and collaborative innovation, part 2

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In part 1 of this post, Bob Young talked about his history as a typewriter salesman, Red Hat's beginnings, and how we are all collaborative by nature. In the second part, below, he talks about his current company, Lulu, publishing, and more about collaborative innovation.

Your big group of friends and customers and very small group of competitors

With the exception of the very narrow group of people who are your direct competitors, everyone else in the world is your friend for the purpose of collaboration.

For example, at Lulu we work with Postgres database. It's in our interest to have more users of Postgres. We'll work with almost anyone who has ideas or concepts around these projects. The only ones we would worry about teaching to use Postgres as well as we use it might be four companies on the whole planet. Everyone else who uses Postgres is just a benefit to us. It's a very broad attitude that you bring to collaboration, because we're all taught from an early age that business is a dog-eat-dog place, and you must hoard information and protect yourself from competitors. But except for that small group of direct competitors, everyone else in the world is actually a friend. They want to see you prosper. They're happy to collaborate with you.

They key thing about Lulu in an open source sense is less what we're doing with open source software, although obviously we use a lot of it. Arguably we use more than most since the CEO here had a lot of confidence in open source software. But the key difference is in how we treat our customers. That's the key cultural similarity between what Lulu does and what Red Hat or any open source company does. We're more focused on innovation and creating value than we are on barriers to entry. It's a difference in approach. Are you trying to build a lobster trap to keep your customers in, or a honey pot where, when they have some honey, they can come back for more because they enjoy your product rather than are required to consume your product? That's the key value of what we're doing. Customer service innovation is going to build a better brand, and building a better brand will lead to our customers' success and our success.

The lobster trap of publishing

In order to convince traditional publishers to publish your book, you sign over all the rights to it to the publishing house. Lulu does the reverse. We don't make you sign over any right. We're just providing a platform for you to sell your book to your audience. We're not trying to take ownership over your book. I understand the publishing economic model--why they need to do that. I just think that for the vast majority of books, it's actually unnecessary. We're busy trying to prove my hypothesis in the marketplace.

Why do some books become Harry Potter, and the other tens of thousands of teenage fantasy novels sell 100 copies and gather dust on a library shelf? It's somewhat magical. It's a weird combination of timing and how one book resonates and the next book just falls flat. And who knows why?

The value beyond money

Malcolm Gladwell tried to speak to it in The Tipping Point, where he postulated a whole thesis to it, and he's a very smart writer. It's still somewhat magic--what makes a pet rock a Pet Rock? When I was growing up in the early 70s, Pet Rocks were a huge phenomenon. People just hauled a lot of rocks out of a quarry somewhere! The current one is Silly Bandz. The big one when my kids were little was Pogs. But for every Silly Bandz or Pog there are 10,000 projects like that that never make it, and publishing is the same way. That doesn't make writing your book any less valuable. The 100 people who read it gain great value, and the effort you spend to share the knowledge is valuable. It could be 100 years before the genius of your book is recognized, but if you don't write it down, it will never be recognized. Books are intrinsically important documents, and if Lulu can help more authors make at least some money from their books, the happier we'll be, and the more successful our authors will be. I think of that as the common piece with the early days of Red Hat, which kept Mark and me going. We thought this thing might not go far, but what really motivated us was that our customers were our fans. They wanted to see us succeed.

What you're doing is more important than making money. In the old Victorian terms, there are companies that cater to man's baser instincts of wine, women, and song. You might make money on gambling, but you don't make the world a better place. But then in the higher instincts of learning, science, and philosophy, you do, over and above the money you're making, make the world a better place. That's why I love business: you make the world a better place, and the world pays you to make it a better place.

Who's doing collaboration right?

Most law firms do it intrinsically every day. They don't even think of it, but that's what they do. They're constantly collaborating on making documents that work, because to make a deal happen, you're working with the law firms on the other side. It's collaborative. You fight over terms, you negotiate terms, you try to understand the business deal, and you try to document it in a contract that both parties can live with. It's a true collaborative effort.

I think of the transportation industry being much the same way. Big firms have to integrate and pass packages off from one to the next. it's only some of the biggest ones, FedEx or UPS, that pick up the package from your door and deliver it to the recipient. Most shipping involves a guy packaging it, who gives it to the shipper, who gives it to the airline, who gives it to a trucker, who gives it to a customer. They all use shared facilities--roads, airports, customs agents, etc. Our society is largely a collaborative society. People keep overlooking that, especially in software, which historically was a private activity done by for-profit companies in isolation away from not just their competitors but their customers. And that's why people love open source. We're bringing the software industry into the 21st century.

Transparency works. Standing on the shoulders of giants to see further is how our society moves forward.

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Ruth Suehle is the community leadership manager for Red Hat's Open Source and Standards team. She's co-author of Raspberry Pi Hacks (O'Reilly, December 2013) and a senior editor at GeekMom, a site for those who find their joy in both geekery and parenting.

1 Comment

This is really interesting stuff. Who would have thought lawyers were at the coal face of open information?

But still I am a skeptical. Lawyers have little choice but to disclose their contracts to the other party (even then, they might both agree to keep it secret); software companies can and do succeed by building closed "lobster traps".

This works because even though it's true that we have many more allies than competitors, but in business, the competitors are more important to us than most other folks.

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