Sunday, October 01, 2006

My Dream Nonprofit: Low Cost Custom IT, Wizkids, and Microenterprise

I've been dreaming of starting my own nonprofit. I mean, I like the freelance web design stuff I've been doing, but I just feel so darned fulfilled (slash jazzed, elated, stoked) every time I have a one-on-one session with one of my entrepreneur clients at the nonprofit PACE. Nothing in my workweek makes me happier. This must be my life's work.

So, here's the plan. Every single person who walks through the door at PACE and JobStarts needs better software for their business. They need a simple database that they can cold call from. They need a tool to design, price, and present floral designs to brides-to-be and high-end hotels. They need an automated, paperless system for buying, upgrading, and selling used cars. They need to keep track of twenty real estate opportunities in a busy brokerage office. They need custom software.

The market for good software is infinite. Every small business could run better if they never had to touch the kludgy, unintegrated wreck that is Microsoft Office. Copy-and-paste, "where's that file on the network," and "why can't I layout text and spreadsheets for my proposals in one simple document?" -- this is the tortured existence of every small business around the globe.

I want my clients to run their entire business from a web browser. I want an interface where data about clients and data about products isn't scattered across twenty files. (It should all just be in the database!) I want software designed to mimic an actual business process, not processes molded to sucky software.

Building this will be hard, but not impossible. With cool tools like Ruby on Rails and Flex, my genius Brazilian development partners, and the manic flood of software architecture gushing out of my brain, we can build anything!

The other ingredient should be kids who want to build stuff. Kids who don't think of computers as immutable consumption products -- glorified televisions for typing out long-winded blog posts and watching YouTube -- but kids who have a feeling that computers are meant to be molded, fiddled with, hacked, and changed, but aren't quite sure how.

Geeks who want to give back will teach the kids how to build cool stuff with Photoshop and Illustrator, XHTML and CSS, databases, and Flex and Ruby on Rails. They'll build some toys for fun, but also what our small business clients need. It will be an after-school program, or maybe a whole charter school. It will be hella fun.

I'm envisioning some sort of hybrid between Npower, Y Combinator and BUILD:
  • Npower is a nonprofit that helps other nonprofits apply technology to serve their clients better. They build custom software, help people plan what they need (including a neat little web app called TechAtlas), and provide training.
  • BUILD teaches underserved kids how to start their own businesses. The result? Kids do better in school, go to college in higher numbers, and hopefully make a few bucks in the process. They become confident leaders and discover their potential to do anything.
  • Y Combinator is a venture firm that gives seed money to smart young people who want to build the next Flickr, YouTube, or Basecamp. They're part VC and part incubator, meaning they help the companies through their first year, as coaches and advisors who've been there. They fund startups in batches, as many as twelve at a time, summers in Cambridge, MA and winters in Mountain View, CA. Everyone has to move there for a few months and hack together. They've launched quite a few nifty products.
Almost every custom software product we build can become a subscription product. There's lots of used car dealers, floral designers, and real estate brokers. Build it once, start selling subscriptions, and keep making the products better. Subscription fees will help subsidize our education activities. It's a social enterprise model that could end up serving young wannabe web geeks everywhere.

Designing and building software should be something everyone does, not just computer scientists. Something doctors and lawyers do, something social workers and teachers do, and most definitely something kids should do. John Maeda wrote about just this topic a while back:
As computer science enrollment goes down worldwide, I am hopeful that there will be an increasing number of students from the liberal arts and non-technology minded fields that take on software development efforts wholeheartedly. Creating software systems that can not only think, but also have a conscience, shall be a critical factor as we move forward in this odd century of extreme proximity and ever-present distance.
The world can seem pretty dark these days. But like computers, reality can be changed. Alan Kay, one of the finest humanist technologists is famous for saying: "The best way to predict the future is to invent it." My hope is that we can replace today's hopeless apocalypticism of failing schools, corrupt governments, and endless war with the hard work of building a whole alternative society right next to the old one. At first a trickle, but then droves, can then just walk away, hand-in-hand.