Before anyone thinks that is one of Howlett’s deliberately provocative headlines, it’s not. Earlier this week Sam Lawrence called me up to talk about Blackbox Republic, a startup he and April Donato have co-founded. Sam is one of my all time favourite marketers who takes creativity to a level few can even contemplate. In a prior life, Sam was chief marketing officer at Jive Software, an enterprise class community and collaboration platform provider.
The first manifestation of Blackbox Republic is a community for the sex positive community. When I saw the pre-briefing links I kinda went: ‘OK, so Sam’s finally gone over the edge and is developing a sophisticated porn site dressed up to look cool.’ Nothing could be further from the truth although the first community Sam and April are leading is something about which they’re both passionate – which helps – and will get attention. What is this about and why should you care?
During our call, Sam explained that at last year’s Burning Man, a random person pulled up to him and April in the desert and offered them both a frozen Margerita. They accepted and he then drove off. There was no transaction involved it was simply a gift from one person to another in the context of a common experience. Sam describes it as a ‘Margarita Moment’ and if you’ve never experienced that then you should – at least once in your life. If as I do you come out of the Summer of Love generation then you may have a reasonable idea what I am talking about. It was out of that unconditional giving that Blackbox Republic was formed. So what is it?
As people, we gravitate towards others with whom we have affinity on a particular topic or issue. Most of us have several passions in our lives that go beyond a transaction. Ask trainspotters, hang glider aficionados or Man Utd fans. Each shares a deep and lasting passion that connects one with another. In our cloistered world that might translate into folk who are deeply into tax planning or systems integration. You can fine slice these again and again. But…where can you find those places where you go beyond the transaction? They don’t exist.
People say that places like MySpace and Facebook fullfil that purpose but neither of those networks does it for me. Facebook may be popular today but I see little or no long term longevity for the service. Others agree. It doesn’t provide the sort of intimacy I want. Blackbox Republic is endeavoring to fill the gap left by these networks of poorly defined affinity groups but adding in essential features. For example, anyone can join provided they’re willing to pay the $25 a month (I like that he has a pay model from the get go. That sorts out the weridos and hangers on from day one) but you can’t really connect with anyone unless they want to connect with you. That means you HAVE to add value and be seen as someone who gives so that you can get attention. That should create the kind of dynamic that breaks Nielsen’s 90-9-1 law of participation inequality. If it achieves that then Blackbox Republic has done something with which many of us in community building land have struggled.
From a professional perspective it adds a dimension to the way in which we can work with clients. How? Take the tax planning angle. In all tax planning there are trade offs. You get something in the one hand but lose something else – hopefully of lesser value in the other. The obvious example are those who choose to become tax exiles. Does that always end up as a happy ever after story? Not always. As an ex-pat, I know the things you go through to make that lifestyle work. Even with all the best intentions and planning it can go horribly wrong and create horrific family tensions. Should that ever be our concern? I think it should.
In my days as a tax planner I would always say to a client – ‘You realize…and then reel off a long list of counter argument’ simply to ensure they knew what they were letting themselves in for. BUT – I only had my case histories to go by. How good might it be if I could have shared at least the generality of experience with others to learn more, provide clients with jump off points through which they could understand what they might experience and so on? Think that’s a tad far fetched? Having been through the experience of adjusting to something as major as offshoring myself and having planned for months for all known eventualites, I would definitely welcome that. Why else do you think there are so many ex-pat communities, groups, forums and other meeting places? But do they ever go far enough? I don’t think so and affinity groups of the kind for which Blackbox Republic today provides what some might see as an extreme proxy have enormous potential value to participants and of course, for service providers that wish to align themselves to these things.
Sam and April are definitely onto something here. The technology allows it but it would be darned hard to replicate the community element without having genuinely passionate people leading the charge. That’s what makes this first iteration so compelling. Some will still take one look and shrug. But since our human connectedness is something that frequently drives our choices, would it not be better to make those somewhere that is safe rather than the bazaar that is Facebook? I think so. And so does my good friend Jeff Nolan who provides another perspective on this exciting startup. Another good friend, Oliver Marks takes a pure consumer look at this topic. Each are very well worth the reading. Later today I will be examining this from the enterprise perspective. I’ll update when it’s done.
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