latest invention from Second Life founder Philip Rosedale launches today, and it's no virtual world. Coffee & Power is an online marketplace that lets people buy and sell small jobs from each other. It's also a network of real-world co-working spaces, called "workclubs," where users can meet to make arrangements or just stay and work.The
Coffee & Power is what Rosedale calls a "meta-company," a framework for doing business with no managers or middlemen, all arranged through a website, an iPhone app and the workclub. The site, the app and the first workclub on Market Street in San Francisco all go live today after a rapidly developed beta period starting this summer. Workers of the world, take notice: this San Francisco startup wants to make each of us the boss.
Your Mission, If You Choose To Accept It
Coffee & Power users perform "missions" for each other ranging from software development to graphic design to chauffeur service to making zombie costumes. They offer a virtual currency called C$ - backed by US$ - as compensation. In the beta period, Coffee & Power users have exchanged over $10,000 in hundreds of missions.
Thus far, Coffee & Power might sound like existing mini-job markets like Zaarly or TaskRabbit. But Rosedale says those services are all about the jobs themselves. Coffee & Power is about the people first and foremost. While the other services just use dollars, Coffee & Power's virtual currency becomes more about giving people credit than merely compensating them. The site ranks participants by missions completed and ratings of trust, letting them build up reputations on a network of creative, well-connected people.
Virtual Currency, Real Work
Rosedale and his LoveMachine co-founders, Ryan Downe and Fred Heiberger, know how these kinds of incentives work. Both the medium of exchange - a virtual currency - and the social dynamics of neighbors helping each other out were tested on Second Life.
Second Life is a virtual Wild West with an almost entirely unregulated economy. It's a more extreme environment than the streets of San Francisco, where Coffee & Power has been beta tested. By this year's measurements, SL also brings in about $100 million a year in revenue, and that's for entirely virtual goods and services. Coffee & Power is the tangible version of that economy, except the costly work of building the city is already done.
Second Life, by contrast, started as a vast, flat, empty plane. Rosedale launched Second Life in 2003, and users had to create all the content themselves. "I think the forces that gave it traction in the beginning was the feeling of freedom and pioneering," Rosedale says. "The early users felt the power and freedom of being asked (and expected/required) to build the whole world themselves."
Coffee & Power users won't have to build a whole world, but they will have to invent new ways of working in the existing one. The old vision of work is static, stable, routine, repetitive. Coffee & Power workers might have different jobs every day. But the key difference is that they work for each other, not for a boss. Rosedale says that same spirit inspired the founding members of Second Life.
At first, the virtual currency in Second Life - Linden Dollars (L$) - was not connected to real money. "The only way to earn dollars was from someone else paying you something," Rosedale says, "so SL was very much a meritocracy, as you needed to do amazing stuff within the community to have large visible wealth."
press attention, and it was off to the races.But then third-party currency exchanges started popping up, L$ found a market price, and Rosedale says that "by late 2005, people really thought of the L$ as being its own real/stable currency." Eventually, the work created in Second Life gained
Rosedale says there's something "sticky" about virtual currencies, even when they're backed by real dollars. It's an investment in the community that uses the currency, which encourages holders to reinvest it rather than cashing out. In terms of Coffee & Power - as well as Second Life - that means members investing in each other.
Working For Each Other
Anne Sullivan, A.K.A. Miss Minty, a trusted Coffee & Power beta user, is driven by the freedom and parity among workers as much as the monetary rewards. When Rosedale recently asked members to describe Coffee & Power in one sentence, Sullivan came up with this slogan: "Coffee & Power: Work for each other - not The Man."
"I usually just work through referrals," she says. "However, I did see a post on Coffee & Power asking, 'I want my old suit turned into a zombie costume.'"
The mission had been posted by Catamount Ventures partner James Joaquin. This task was a natural fit for Sullivan's talents. "When I went to pick it up," she says, "he was over the moon." He told her he had a big party to go to, but he had no idea how to get in touch with a professional costume designer.
Coffee & Power made an ideal venue for that. Thanks to the system of recommendations and account validations it uses, Miss Minty and Jamesj were able to start working together with a pre-established level of trust. Here is a slideshow of the resulting zombie costume:
Cutting Out The Middle Man
As a professional costume designer, it isn't surprising that she did an awesome job on the zombie costume. But for Sullivan, the Coffee & Power economic model is essential to the work itself.
She says the name "Coffee & Power" instantly reminded her of a book with the same name about the politically turbulent 1980s in Central America. The elite and the working people in El Salvador, Costa Rica and Nicaragua during that time had to strike difficult balances and make compromises in order for those societies to make it through the decade intact.
"I think that is something a lot of people have felt is missing in the workplace as of late," Sullivan says, citing the growth of the Occupy movement as evidence that the need for such compromises is now felt worldwide. "Big business has lost its humanity."
Sullivan sees Coffee & Power as a working model for how work in the 21st century could be redefined. "If you let people work amongst themselves, a mutual respect will arise." It's not a market based on scarcity. It's as abundant with potential as its participants are, and it lets them decide what their work is worth.
It's also one that suits the remote, largely virtual and independent nature of the changing 21st-century workplace. On Coffee & Power, workers don't have to be just one thing; they can use their full range of skills for whatever work their compatriots want done. "It's not that we have to to different work," Sullian says, "but maybe we have to do it for different people."
I Want And I Will
Coffee & Power users can post and browse missions in two forms: wills and wants. Requests for a mission take the form, "I want _____," and volunteered missions are phrased as "I will _____." Members can browse for work or services by location as well as category.
I pointed out to Rosedale that these two verbs would make an excellent fit for Facebook's Open Graph, and a Facebook app would be a great way to spread the word. He thought that was interesting, but it wasn't where his head was at. Rosedale is thinking about a marketing strategy inspired by a value system that matters much more to both of us than Facebook: Burning Man.
The principles of Burning Man are an antidote to the alienating effects of the social Web and the corporate values that underlie them. That's why so many of the Web's radical thinkers attend. The first Google doodle in 1998 was the team's Burning Man away message. It's no coincidence that Second Life was inspired by Burning Man as well.
Burning Man's principle of gifting is one of the main ways its participants break the ice and establish trust and immediacy with one another. That's the way Rosedale wants to spread Coffee & Power.
Any mission can be gifted to a prospective member, who would be introduced to Coffee & Power by redeeming it. This is an invitation to the service vastly more meaningful than any Twitter mention or beta invite. After a gift mission is accomplished, Rosedale hopes, new users will trust that this system works.
The Value of Transparency
Rosedale and the Coffee & Power team work hard to maintain that trust. Their commitment to the economic model of Coffee & Power - and the openness and transparency it entails - goes right to the core of the way the project was built.
Prior to building Coffee & Power, the LoveMachine team built worklist.net, a marketplace specifically for building software using the same job exchange model that Coffee & Power has. In fact, Coffee & Power was and is developed using Worklist, and that means it's totally transparent. You can view the entire C&P development process on Worklist including the budget.
Developers will love Worklist as a way of building out software projects. We'll save the details for a separate post on ReadWriteHack. For now, suffice it to say that Coffee & Power is a democratic place. The builders are constantly seeking input from the participants, who are also, in a sense, builders. On the Coffee & Power homepage, the public chat widget is constantly buzzing with back-and-forth between users and the team.
A New Way of Working
Something's got to give. People are camped in cities around the world demanding a new way of working and doing business. The Web has supported the current wave of social movements, serving as a citizen medium when official outlets won't suffice. But Web companies themselves chug merrily along, monetizing the status quo.
Tech companies - and certainly tech writers - like to use the word "revolution" to describe the really big changes. Is that justified? Isn't it a bit boy-who-cried-wolf to call responsive Web design or an AI phone secretary "revolutionary?" How would we know a real Web revolution if we saw one? For starters, it would probably have to move off the Web and into the real world. Coffee & Power is taking values learned in a virtual world and using them to change the workplace. That sounds like a promising start.
Stay tuned. We'll check back in with Coffee & Power after it has some time to grow and tell you what its founders and members have learned and accomplished in the meantime.
Burning Man photo credit: Josh Adler
Do you think Coffee & Power can change the way we work? Share your thoughts in the comments.