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The edible microenterprise

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Food startups in the small batch economy

Forget silicon chips, search algorithms, and semiconductors — the most delicious startups today aren’t tech, they’re food startups! Instead of garages, the tinkering goes on in communal kitchens, with yummy results just waiting to be monetized.

Take a look around your nearest local market (especially the outdoors ones) and you’ll observe the artisan effect — the interest that people take in small food vendors who make a great product.

Brooklyn Flea is the trading floor of the food micro-enterprise market. A recent NYMag article highlighted this year’s newest small-operations vendors (among them, Elsa’s Empanadas, Saxelby Cheesemongers) and noted:

When the Brooklyn Flea launched a year ago on an asphalt schoolyard in Fort Greene, no one expected it to become a dining destination—never mind a springboard for the fledgling careers of the food vendors who gravitated there. The Flea, in fact, has become something of an incubator for micro-batch, locally made products, from pickles to ice pops.

Kathrine Gregory formalized this incubator concept in her communal kitchen operation in Long Island City, called Mi Kitchen is Su Kitchen. She owns three facilities, each one with its own specialty and equipment. Food manufacturers (bakers, quiche-makers, etc) come and rent a few shifts at a time, to get access to commercial equipment you couldn’t fit in a typical NYC apartment (nor would you necessarily want in your personal living space): a revolving rack oven, an 80-quart mixer.

“Food operation startups are capital-intensive,” says Kathrine. “If you’re going to grow a food business, you need a proper foundation, some kind of legal entity like a DBA or LLC or Inc. You need commercial space with licensing and the structure to grow your business.” In other words, once your home-made chili mango salsa recipe becomes a hit and you want to distribute outside of your friends and family, your home kitchen becomes a liability. You enter a professional space that requires inspection by insurance companies and the State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

Kathrine was a guest on WNYC radio yesterday, when The Brian Lehrer show aired a segment called “Growing Together” — about the power of collaboration in today’s small businesses (listen here, 19 minutes).

Elsa's Empanadas

Elsa's Empanadas

Kathrine’s food incubator doesn’t target the “business people” who run food enterprises, it targets the “manufacturers” who actually make and craft the food products.

In her words, “It’s not the restaurateurs and it’s not the cafe owner, it is the brownie-maker and the pickler. This is the manufacturer who is going to sell their product to the Dean & Deluca’s, the cafe owners, the restaurant.”

Like baby chickens, young businesses are vulnerable. They need protection from the harsh world if they are to survive and grow. A business incubator provides that protection to young startups, according to another guest on the “Growing Together” segment — David Hochman, CEO of the Business Incubator Association of New York (whose logo is in fact a hatched egg).

David’s organization draws on national academic research on business incubation, citing an 80% survival rate of startups, 5 years after graduating from an incubation center — and a majority of those startups stay local, in the region where they started. This is encouraging news for regions that need to harness local entrepreneurial activity into a focal point, like an incubator, whether the industry is high-tech or new media or food-related.

While there is no typical business incubator space, Mi Kitchen is a literal cookie-cutter place, and proud of it.

making cookies at Mi Kitchen est Su Kitchen

making cookies at Mi Kitchen

Gabriele Stabile for NYT, When Cooks’ Dreams Outgrow Their Ovens


Written by @hellopanelo

April 17, 2009 at 9:44 am

Academia vs Industry = Interrobang?!

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In a recent post to the Harvard Business blog, president of RISD design school John Maeda broke down the differences between academia and industry, in terms of punctuation:


Basically, academic thinking takes a lot of free, expansive thinking, that can wander sometimes, and sometimes go on tangents, and ask rhetorical questions, on its quest for knowledge. Academia can be the unending sentence, braced by more commas and continuations.

Contrast that with business and industry, which require a goal and an end date. Business is a full-stop period. It knows where its going and stops.

Industry is also a loud exclamation point. It has to shout to be heard in a competitive market place (!!!!!)

In contrast, academia is the question mark, the critical thinking that guides us.

Read John’s post for a good synthesis on how these four punctuation marks play out in the academic and industry spaces. It explains some of the miscommunication or misplaced intentions between academics and business folks — one thinks the other is stuck in the ivory tower; the other things the one is too short-sighted.

(I’m sure some situations call for the interrobang: a typographic character, a combination of the question mark and exclamation point at once.)

Written by @hellopanelo

April 12, 2009 at 4:11 pm

lego my google

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Gadgets API
are simple HTML and JavaScript applications that can be embedded in webpages and other apps.

In more practical terms, Gadgets API is what lets you create a fun Google design theme that looks like legos. In a design-crazed world, the revolution doesn’t stop at the internet! My email homepage is now attributed to Jean-Charles de Castelbajac (“aka JCDC or King of Pop is a designer who has inspired the interplay between Fashion, Art and Design for 40 years” as stated on Google’s website).

This ability to easily create Flash content and embed it anywhere else on the web reminds me of Sprout Builder, a little widget featured at last week’s NY Tech Meetup at FIT. Sprout’s still in beta (i.e. FREE, you recessionistas!) so it’s worth playing around with, especially if you have video content to feature. PR folks — it has obvious value as a promotional tool for entertainment (musicians, actors, clips of any kind) but, everyone else, I’m sure you can think of unintended use for this little piece of Flash technology. (I think it’s Flash, anything slick and cartoony I assume is Flash)

Written by @hellopanelo

April 11, 2009 at 11:58 pm

The next Big Idea — the insaner, the better

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What’s a meta for?

Metaphor has scandalized philosophers, including both scholastics and semiotics, because it seems to be wrong: It asserts an identity between two different things. And it is wrongest when it is most beautiful.

– Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle

Like the artist with collage, the author who arranges a metaphor has to ask — will it blend? That is, will the two disparate concepts come together and create a metaphor of new meaning?

Shakespeare says the world’s a stage. Life, to Forrest Gump, is a box of chocolates. A dream deferred, says Langston Hughes, is a raisin in the sun.

Creating and marketing nonsensical products

Big Think Strategy — a book from marketing maven Berndt Schmitt — continues this line of reasoning. What are the seemingly unrelated ideas we can pull together to inject new life and meaning to a brand?

Schmitt likes to rip up magazines to mix the metaphors.

The Big Idea is a card game you can play for the same effect:


Game theory + chaos theory = idea generation

The deck of cards features nouns and adjectives. Mix and match the cards, then try to market and pitch the resulting wacky products — Erotic Chowder, Mentholated Shampoo.

Sumana H. — intrepid marketer when she wants to be, and a previous interviewee — brought my attention to this game, by way of her pitched ads for these nonsensical products:

  • Edible High-Priority Chowder, to cure anxiety of choice at the salad bar
  • Herbal Natural Chainsaw, strong enough for a logger but made for a hippie
  • Networked Beer, to ensure you never feel like you’re drinking alone [Ed. note: Isn’t that what meetups are for?]

Cheapass Games, the cheeky manufacturers of this boardgame, challenge your marketing wits: “Do you think you’re the marketing whiz who can talk the public into a Perforated Kilt? Then you’re ready to play The Big Idea!”

[Note: Cheapass Games is an indie-nomics enterprise on its own, noting that most games are overpriced and generic. Dice, pencils, plastic parts — “these generic bits and pieces can account for as much as 75% of a game’s production cost, and that cost gets handed to you.”]

Not just a game: wacky product/service combos in real life

These (seemingly) nonsensical products — and services — are the wave of the entrepreneurial future folks! Just scroll through the list at, a running tally of new business ideas just ridiculous enough to work.

Like this, my current favorite — a mashup of current obsessions:


Written by @hellopanelo

March 27, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Collage, and the art of marketing strategy

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illus. by Cristiana Coucerio


Collage: arranging disparate scraps into a meaningful whole.

In the hands of an artist, collage can be an artful blend of figure, type, annotation.

In the hands of Bernd Schmitt, collage can be a strategic business tool.

Schmitt — professor at Columbia’s B-School, director of its Center on Global Brand Leadership and, consequentially, Matt’s boss’s boss — sees collage as a tool that helps managers “encourage unusual connections in the brain.”

Combining the (seemingly) incompatible

Here’s an exercise Schmitt likes: rip up magazines and create a visual board of brands and business trends. Now, pair the two randomly.

Say you have a Coca-cola ad, and an article on the green movement. How would you design a campaign strategy around this combination? What are the challenges and advantages to the brand’s positioning?

“It is key to pair concepts that seem incompatible because they stretch people’s imagination and facilitate the formation of unusual connections.”

To read Schmitt’s full explanation of the collage exercise, search for the term in his book Big Think Strategy (2007).

Written by @hellopanelo

March 24, 2009 at 4:51 pm

Mood-altering “motivationals” — kitten posters, possibility books, and physical talismans

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In his book Snoop, psychologist Sam Gosling says we keep some stuff around to assert our identities (brand-name goods, affiliation markers), but other stuff we own to regulate our moods.

Sound familiar? What are all the things we surround ourselves with, to subtly or obviously motivate us towards goals?

Successories is a company that has seized this market for “visual motivation.” (I like to think they got their start from that inspirational “Hang in There” kitten poster from the 70’s.) You’ve seen the Successories posters before — a majestic bald eagle accompanies a pithy statement on “Excellence”, or a crew team rowing in early dawn exemplifies some proverb on “Teamwork.” The imagery and language of Successories is ripe for parody, not lost on, whose line of Demotivators posters are committed to “Increasing Success by Lowering Expectations.”

Successories is cheesy because it’s manufactured and corporate-minded. What does a DIY approach look like for motivational propaganda?

In the 2005 film Last Holiday, Queen Latifah keeps a “Possibilities Book” — a scrapbook of magazine clippings and handwritten notes of her dreams for the future. When she finds out she has a terminal illness, she sets out to fulfill every dream in her possibilities book (which apparently involves going to chef Gérard Depardieu’s hotel chalet restaurant in Prague.)

In the web 2.0 world, a possibilities book could be something like, a site that “makes your life a list.” You put you goals down, 43 things you want to do before you die, and get encouragement from others and presumably the motivation that comes from just expressing a specific ambition.

dollar1Sometimes the things you carry, literally, are an expression of your ambition. A young Jim Carey — way before his big break, working the stand-up comedy circuit in L.A. — once wrote himself a post-dated check for $10 million and carried that around as a tangible reminder of his goals.

But back to web 2.0 and the DIY approach.

Why not make your own visually motivating posters? After all, only you know what gets you out of bed in the morning. For these people, it’s simple: Make Something Cool Every Day. For Jeffre Jackson, blogger at Pink Air and inspiration for this post, he’s created his own nifty set of DIY motivation collages…


Written by @hellopanelo

March 21, 2009 at 7:05 pm

Like Minded Studio presents… Sumana Harihareswara

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Logo from creative firm Like Minded Studio (TM)

Logo from creative firm Like Minded Studio (TM)

Sumana Harihareswara can deliver an elevator pitch anywhere, not least in an actual elevator. At last week’s Creative Commons salon, four of us crowded into the lift to the 6th floor. During the 30-second ascent, Sumana facilitated a group introduction, distributed her business card, and clued us into a sci-fi web anthology she was publishing under a creative commons license.

A technology executive and comedienne who has written for and the Oakland Tribune, Sumana adds a diverse perspective to the copyright conversation. The internet was made for people like Sumana — she thinks in links and connects ideas across disciplines.

She’s taught “Politics and Modern Science Fiction” at UC Berkeley and is a graduate of Columbia’s M.S. in Technology Management. We met recently at the Havana Central near campus, discussed the taxonomy limits of printed restaurant menus (too static, no tagging ability), and covered a whirlwind of ideas from there.


Me: Why should everyday people care about copyright issues?

Sumana: The ordinary person is affected by copyright and they don’t even know it. People are affected by all sorts of things and they don’t know it. With copyright, they don’t know that special interest groups have made it this way because of heavy lobbying. Do you remember that GEICO commercial Tiny House?

Me: Yes, that was hilarious. [The ad, a spoof of reality TV, features newlyweds stuck in a nightmare home where everything is built really small. It drives them crazy.]

Sumana: At one point the guy screams, “I just want to make an omelet!” Copyright is like that. Sometimes people just want to make an omelet, but they can’t. People want to download an e-book and share it, or buy a song and share it with their friends –- but at the moment they realize they can’t share, that’s a pain point. That’s when we can market to people, at these pain points. For example, you can’t share and download YouTube videos easily because of restrictions, so Miro [a product of the Participatory Culture Foundation] has provided a solution, the ability to easily download web video.

Me: Tell me more about these “pain points” people have with digital rights management (DRM).

Sumana: I call them teachable moments. Have you heard of Defective by Design? It’s an organization and a movement that exposes why DRM sucks in people’s personal lives. They organize protests at the Apple Stores, against all the iTunes stuff. They help people understand and explain why you have these problems.

Me: On your website, you ask people to donate to charity instead of buying you things for birthdays or holidays. Tell me more about the two organizations you chose.

Sumana: Both organizations — American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) — are pro-civil-liberties. The ACLU is, among other things, a beneficiary of liberals in Hollywood. They support things like 1st amendment free speech and LGBT issues. Corporations make money on the Hollywood system, but those corporations don’t support me. The EFF is a civil liberties group that operates in the digital world. [Journalist and copyright activist] Cory Doctorow blogs at BoingBoing, a blog I read every day, and he’s done a lot of work with EFF.

Me: Speaking of non-profits, did you make it to that OpenGeo forum on campus today? (OpenGeo is the open-source geospatial division of The Open Planning Project, a social enterprise with a passion for technology.)

Sumana: No. I took a nap instead. [grin]

[SIDEBAR] The “dot-org” is a hybrid of for-profit and non-profit structures. Often, one will spin off the other. For example, the Mozilla Foundation (non-profit) owns the Mozilla Corporation (for-profit), which developed Firefox — the free and open-source browser that has the #2 position behind Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. OpenGeo has a great explanation of the dot-org philosophy on their website.

Me: Tell me more about the cc-licensed sci-fi anthology you’re working on.

Sumana: Thoughtcrime Experiments is a web anthology of speculative fiction financed and launched by my husband, Leonard. He’s a member of sci-fi writing groups, and often came across stories with great potential. He’d say, “I adore this story, but I know it will never get published. There should be a place where these stories can find an audience.” He decided to invest $1000 of his own money in these stories. He would select five authors, pay them $200 each, and publish them in a creative-commons-licensed collection. The number of authors is now up to nine. I have to send out rejection letters to some of the authors. It’s very hard. I actually cried a little bit.

Me: Sounds like a true labor of love. What drives you to do this?

Sumana: This is completely a nonprofit enterprise. We are spending our own money, we are not making any money, we are not putting out ads. It’s our way of giving back to the commons and liberating these stories.

* * * * *

Thoughtcrime Experiements debuts in May, via popular DIY-publishing shop Lulu.

Written by @hellopanelo

March 2, 2009 at 12:37 pm