Organizing the new labor

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Essays

If, as my fellow investor and friend Albert suggests, speculative investing becomes more common in time, as the “money is top-heavy” edict becomes more pronounced, there should then be more high-risk capital available to fund startups, and as a result, the startup funnel will widen. And in addition, of course, it’s easier than ever to start a company and start to grow it, and the opportunity is attractive to an increasingly global audience of hackers and hustlers. As a result, it’s not unreasonable to conclude, as the Fortune 500 sees more creative destruction, and public companies shrink in number, that the entrepreneur – or, at least the free agent – is the new labor for the 21st century.**

Sara Horowitz at Freelancer’s Union has captured the imagination of a large segment of this growing population – the traditional freelancers – and has created a gold standard for services for the gig economy. The organizers at Peers are working in healthy tension with the sharing economy platforms to provide a voice to the Lyft drivers, AirBnb hosts, and TaskRabbits. And finally, I think the accelerators and incubators are another key component of organization for this new labor. Just like the unions played an incredibly significant part of the 20th century, balancing corporate interests in lowering wages and cutting benefits against the rights of the working class, the incubators and accelerators play an equally powerful part in protecting the interests of the entrepreneurs against, well, us. Transparency in pay, pricing, terms, and a community of like-minded professionals who provide support networks to each other is a critical component of any new labor class.

Coding bootcamps and vocational training programs focused on startup competency are another great piece of infrastructure to this end. While one can’t become a proficient software engineer in a month, or necessarily in three months, training programs that get an individual off the ground with a prototype, or in an early-stage job at a startup move the culture forward, by making the opportunity to participate in this new industry more accessible to more people.

But what of protection against firing? You can’t fire a member of an organized labor group without cause, and in many states that’s by law. But in an incredibly high-risk environment like the innovation ecosystem, how do you create infrastructure for downside protection? Acquihires are part of that trend, and I think those are fantastic, for this reason. I like that Exitround.com is trying to make it easier for that marketplace to transact. But, still, vast swaths of people who are creating and joining startups, hoping to land somewhere interesting as a result of their incredibly hard work are left penniless and without many options. If this ecosystem will really have a cambrian explosion globally, and the value creation will actually be more inclusive and less extractive, this is a key piece of the puzzle. Without it, there’s a strong disincentive for people who aren’t already financially stable, and for those who are yet fail, they are, at best, collateral damage. And that’s a shame.

**You might laugh at the idea of a seed-funded entrepreneur being working class, but it’s worth considering the fact that plenty of seed-funded entrepreneurs don’t have friends and family backing, don’t have savings to speak of, and are earning very, very little while building for product-market fit. Gideon Lewis-Kraus writes really eloquently about it in his book, No Exit. You’re probably just thinking about the seed-funded entrepreneurs that YOU know, who are the exception, not the rule.

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