Oct 18 2010

Yi-Tan tech and business model case study

Jerry Michalski put out a call for past author / presenters to show up and talk about what’s changed since they talked on his weekly phone call in observance of the 300th call.  I offered to talk about the very simple mix of tools that support the Yi-Tan community (yes, I think of it as a community and we wrote a vignette about it on p 73 of Digital Habitats).  Here is my list of tools that make Yi-Tan function so well:

  • An email list, mainly for announcing upcoming calls, although occasionally someone will reply
  • A wiki that lists ideas for upcoming calls and describes each speaker and provides some helpful links for each call
  • A free phone bridge that makes an audio recording
  • A podcast set-up for people who missed the call
  • An IRC channel

Here are some of the practices that make it work:

  • Short calls at a regular time (nominally 35 minutes, but they often go longer)
  • Jerry always reminds people to mute themselves, and there haven’t been too many accidents such as people putting the call on a musical hold
  • Jerry’s summary at the end of each call is a feat of comprehension and a useful review that gives you the feeling of a good “take away”
  • The IRC channel supports the phone call and lets people share resources, heckle, queue up questions, and greet each other

A few months ago I was in a brainstorming session with Jerry and some other guys to talk about what might be added or changed.  Turns out that improving on this mix is difficult, suggesting that it might be the “minimum that would work” (to use Ward Cunningham’s phrase to describe his design goals for the first wiki).

  • There is a twitter-stream which seems to augment the email announcements and supplement, but not replace, the IRC channel
  • There is a huge back-channel that makes it all work; among other things, Jerry runs a retreat that brings innovators and techies together once a year

Thinking about this digital habitat led me to think about the business model or economic niche around this community.  I took a crack at describing it using Alexander Osterwalder‘s business model canvas:

Obviously there is a lot more to say and my guesses may be off, but:

  • Whatever the mix of technologies and other resources are that support Yi-Tan, they work.  Three hundred weekly calls is about as close to “sustainable” as we get these days.  Whatever the business model of the Yi-Tan community is, it works.
  • There is something really important about free-standing communities like Yi-Tan: they generate a lot of cross-pollination and idea-hatching.  I’m sure a lot of other people go to these calls just for the mind-stretching.  But the business model question is most important for just that kind of community (I’m not saying that Osterwalder’s scheme exactly works to describe the workings of a community, but it’s closer than anything else I’ve seen.)
  • There is a kind of fitness and leanness about the Yi-Tan community’s set-up that those of us who work to set up and support communities for a living should think hard about.  Lavish support can lead to stupor so we need to be careful to not aim to set our fees as a percentage of whatever lavishness can be squeezed out of a corporation or a grant.

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