What I learned from 100 Uber rides

About 18 months ago, my boss issued an instruction to all staff: for regular travel to client meetings, work functions and so forth, he wanted us to use Uber-X. His reason was simple; it’s cheaper than using taxis.

The biggest taxi user in the office is me; my job requires me to shuttle around Sydney to meet clients on a daily basis. I hadn’t tried Uber before, but I was happy to comply. And I quickly became oddly fixated on it. Yes, it was saving us a few bob. And yes, it was a novelty. But it also gave me a new mini hobby: talking to Uber drivers.

I made a decision before that first Uber ride, that I would talk to every driver who picked me up. I have now taken about 100 Uber rides in the last year and a half. I have only broken my “talk to every driver rule” twice. Once when a driver and his car smelt so terribly that the olfactory assault of it all shocked me into stunned silence. And once more when a driver’s inability to follow his own GPS system, made him take a wrong turn, and head to the other end of the Harbour Bridge from where my meeting was at, making me embarrassingly late and leaving us sitting in awkward silence with each other.

I had no strong reason for wanting to talk to Uber drivers, other than to discover what (ahem) drove them to take it up in first place. Was there also part of me which wanted to democratise the whole process? Did I not want to feel like I was participating in a sort of 21st century servitude? I don’t know. But I can report back on what I’ve found after slightly fewer than 100 conversations with Uber drivers.

I always start off by asking how long they’ve been an Uber driver. There is a genuinely wide response here, but I think within that range there are two clusters; people who have been doing it for less than 3 months and people who have been doing it for over 2 years. The newbies and the veterans. Interestingly, the veterans aren’t necessarily jaded and the newbies aren’t necessarily in love with it all. Why there’s not as many people in the middle of the range, I don’t know.

But nearly all of them are men. In 18 months I’ve had two female Uber drivers. One, a cheery middle aged woman in an SUV who had started driving that day (“you’re my third passenger!” she beamed) and one rock chick with purple hair and a silver floor matted hoon mobile. She advised me to correct my pick up address if the app had got it wrong, which it frequently does. This was after she gently scolded me for not being where the pin said I was.

She gave an interesting response to another question I often ask, about whether or not it’s a lucrative exercise for them. Her system, she told me, was to drive each day for as long as it took her to meet her self-imposed sales target. Then she went home. Having such as system is rare amongst my informal sample. But the general consensus on it being a money making exercise seems to be that to make good money, you have to drive a lot of hours, capitalise on the surge pricing and drive on Friday and Saturday nights, thus running the risk of drunken revellers vomiting in your mobile workplace.

When asked what they like about Uber driving, there’s one thing I heard over and over again: flexibility. Flexibility is something I take for granted in my working life. Whether it be through understanding employers or a blundering habit of mine to do my own thing without asking, it’s something I’ve always felt I had and naively, I get slightly confused when I hear others longing for flexibility around hours worked, time off and so on. But time and again I’ve heard Uber drivers nominate that as it’s number one benefit. I work when I like. I’m my own boss.

If I’m being judgemental, some of these blokes (as they almost overwhelmingly are) don’t seem like the sorts who would be happy working for a boss anyway. There’s a notable subset of people who quit their last job because, “the boss was an idiot” or something similar. There’s a definite streak of anti-authoritarianism. Many are between jobs; the one who sold his café and looks for a site for his next business as he drives around, the 63 year old laid off last year who’s doing this while waiting for job interviews and – worryingly – the management consultant who takes it up during the inevitably quiet months of December and January.

Others have something else on the go. They’ve got a business on the side, there’s a project they’re working on, they work another job at night. Entrepreneurship can do with some regular income coming in. Some have grander plans; like the one who plans to use Uber to fund the purchase of a second car, which he’ll then lease out to other Uber drivers to raise money for a third car, and so on until he has a fleet of five and he’s given up driving, and living of the lease income.

Many are students; the engineering student who wants to work on cars, but can’t see the prospect of any jobs in Australia, the communications student selling health food parcels as well (“here, take my card”), the Iranian migrant earning money to complete his course in aviation.

Some gripe about Uber, but not many. Some gripe about riders, but not many. Some talk of the inevitable conflict with taxi drivers, of being abused as allegedly happened to one in Wollongong this week. Many are taxi drivers who having failed to beat ‘em, have joined ‘em. (These are the least talkative but the strongest on navigation, the perennial weak spot of Uber drivers, despite GPS assistance.)

And all the time, I’m thinking about the good and bad of all this. The freedom and flexibility of it, versus the lack of workplace conditions, seemingly left behind without a thought. In this post, futurist Sam Sammartino says we should all be giving up our fixation with jobs anyway, thinking about how we can use our own assets and skills to generate the revenue we need and want, taking charge of our own destiny. I think that’s hugely problematic, but his call is part of ongoing national crush on entrepreneurship. Through this lens, being an Uber driver is the opposite of servitude; it’s picking yourself up by the bootstraps and having a flamin’ go.

I wouldn’t discount this view out altogether, but it neglects that at the end of all of this homespun entrepreneurialism, there’s a multinational corporation taking 25% of every drive, not paying for leave or insurance and waiting to replace the whole system with driverless cars. Can something be entrepreneurial on a personal level for its participants, while being an exploitative business with lowly paid suppliers at heart?

My one-hundredth Uber ride was to Melbourne airport with a man from Pakistan, and if he felt exploited, he didn’t show it through his cheery demeanour. I asked all my questions and got my standard responses. Then the subject turned to Australia and he said he had come here by boat. From Pakistan to Malaysia to Indonesia to Christmas Island. From there to months in a detention centre in Weipa. And finally on to Melbourne where no job awaited, but where he could drive an Uber and work on his citizenship application. Enterprise. Entrepreneurship. Courage. Tenacity.

“Thing is,” he says, “when Chinese people get out at the airport. They don’t know how to call a cab. But they can work Uber. Uber is everywhere.” He’s got that right.

On who’s in and who’s out: Part 1 –Creative Industries

Since my last post, I’ve been having a series of discussions about this tricky, slippery term, the creative industries.

The first was with Gavin Bowman who pointed out that industry definitions exist to include or exclude things; things like businesses, occupations or people. We draw boundaries around these things because it helps us make sense of them, but also because there’s usually a more specific purpose in mind. We want to lobby, to form alliances, to compare etc.

In this sense, a definition of the creative industries is indivisible from its purpose. Or perhaps the logic behind any definition can only be understood by how it’s applied. A government policy, for instance, might limit its definition due to budgetary restraints. A trade union might apply the widest possible definition in order to attract the most members.

All this made me wonder if I knew what an industry was. In my last post, I proposed a definition of creative industries that excluded activities without a commercial intent (which would include hobbyists and not-for-profit entities).

I did this in part because I had one eye on entrepreneurialism and the looming question about where that resides in the creative industries, but I was also wondering just how industrious one has to be to be part of an industry. Does membership of an industry require you to have a commercial intent? My colleague Ben Fletcher of this fine establishment here thought not; profit and not-for-profit activities sat together within an industry, each being of competition to the other.

***

A quick sidestep to the mighty Australian and New Zealand Standard Industrial Classification (ANZSIC) as maintained by the ABS since 1993, in an attempt to define what an industry is.  It says,

The objective when developing an industrial classification is to identify groupings of businesses which carry out similar economic activities. Subject to certain criteria being met, each such grouping defines an industry and the similar economic activities which characterise the businesses concerned are referred to as activities primary to that industry. (my emphasis)

So if an industry definition only makes sense when you understand its purpose, we know the ABS’s is to “identify groupings of businesses”, for administrative ease in use by government, businesses and um, citizens, I suppose. A kind of Dewey decimal system for industry classification.

It goes on to confidently assert:

When the classification is completed, any individual business can then be assigned an appropriate industry category on the basis of its predominant activities. (my emphasis)

And it agrees with Ben, by saying:

The term business is used in its widest sense to include any organisation which provides goods and services, including companies, non-profit organisations, government departments and enterprises.

The first classification of ANZSIC looks like this:

blog1

Which seems straightforward enough, but take it down a level and the complexities start to show. Take “R Arts and Recreation Services” as an example:

blog 2

And so on down through the superstructure until we hit individual occupations such bird reserve operation, journalistic services, netball club operation and bookmaking operations. All part of good ship “R Arts and Recreation Services”.

Any industry definition is obviously going to have its oddities and miscellaneous items. I suppose the point is that as much as they seek to include and exclude, they are also contestable and are, no doubt, contested.

Naturally enough, the creative industries (as defined by, take your pick, but let’s say the UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport) are scattered throughout sections J, M, R and probably others too. Which is apt for a term which places architects next to actors and fashion designers next to games designers and says, you lot… you all do kind of the same thing.

Another regular and robust conversationalist is Tony Shannon who reminded me that back in the day, we used to wonder about whether it was the “creative industries” or the “creative industry”. If we took the ABS at its word, it’s an industry singular, because we can identify a “grouping” of businesses, no matter how diverse and call them an industry. Even though its own library catalogue on the subject tells us that to get to that catch all term, we have to collate businesses from across a range of industries. If anything, it’s a creative cross-section.

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This whole “creative industries” malarkey started when a politician had a need to name it as such, as Australian academic Justin O’Connor points out in his literature review on the topic:

blog 3

In its genesis, then, the term “creative industries” was not a literal term, but a political one, designed, at least in part, to win votes and increase support for a government. It was invented to make sense of a group of businesses which existed across industry lines, but had a shared meaning to government and presumably, voters. It continues to be reinvented, but still, it has come to mean something which is broadly understood as a collection of organisations and individuals which create products and services. After that though, its boundaries blur, defying more precise definition.

Where does entrepreneurship intersect with this ambiguous term? Surely its definitional boundaries are even hazier than those of the creative industries. Perhaps as I talk more about entrepreneurship as a personal trait (that’s Part 2, you see), it is the individual creatives which become more important than how they classify themselves. As Tony remarked to me, perhaps what we’re talking about here is creative entrepreneurs, rather than entrepreneurship in the creative industries.

References:
Australian Bureau of Statistics 1993, 1292.0 – Australian and New Zealand Standard Industrial Classification (ANZSIC), viewed 6 May 2017, http://www.abs.gov.au/Ausstats/abs@.nsf/2f762f95845417aeca25706c00834efa/5BD72C7D74F64C6BCA25697E0018FD27?opendocument
Australian Bureau of Statistics 2006, 1292.0 – Australian and New Zealand Standard Industrial Classification (ANZSIC), 2006 (Revision 2.0) viewed 6 May 2017, http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/1292.0Contents12006%20(Revision%202.0)?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=1292.0&issue=2006%20(Revision%202.0)&num=&view=
Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Creative Industries Economic Estimates January 2015, viewed 6 May 2017, https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/394668/Creative_Industries_Economic_Estimates_-_January_2015.pdf
O’Connor, Justin (2010), The cultural and creative industries : a literature review [2nd ed.].
Creativity, Culture and Education Series. Creativity, Culture and Education, London.

A creative industries definition that recognises commercial intent (WIP).

Talk about the  term “creative industries’ seems to inevitably lead to questions of definition. And those questions lead to more questions. And before long, we’re in a world of confusion.

Who’s in and who’s out? And what does it mean when we leave some creative types out? Is the term ‘cultural industries’ a better term? What about the ‘creative economy’? What happens when we shoehorn the arts and culture in with architecture, design and games? And have we only added software development into the creative industries because it makes the numbers look better?

This matters to approximately no-one working in the creative/cultural industries/economy. But it absolutely matters to people analysing these industries, trying to make sense of what role they play in society and why government is supporting them. And as I’m thinking about entrepreneurship in the creative industries, it matters to me.

This literature review, section 5 of a paper by Justin O’Connor, gives a thorough overview of how the terminology and definitions of creativity have changed since the 1990s. He airs questions well worth asking, such as, was the term only created to legitimise culture in the eyes of government number crunchers? How legitimate is the much-mentioned link between the creative industries and creation of new IP? Is the arts strengthened (through legitimisation) or weakened (through dumbing down) by inclusion as an industrial output? And what place for the idea of quantifying the creative economy by counting creative workers in non-creative industries?

O’Connor also outlines various attempts to define the creative industries, and each model has its pros and cons. And each, I think, misses something about how the creative industries work in practice – that there’s a range of products created in these ‘industries’ which lack an essential element of industry: the intent to exploit the work commercially.

Existing models

Here are three models outlined in O’Connor’s literature review. David Throsby’s relies on a hierarchy of creativity, with purely artistic endeavours at the top of the tree:

throsby

A European Commission report from 2006 seeks to stratify the industries into arts, culture and creative.

KEA

The Work Foundation presents a version which positions the industry segments as part of the overall economy. It also introduces the concept of ‘expressive value’, to differentiate between the ‘pure’ arts and distribution based enterprises. It also places IP production as central to the definition.

workfoundation

We can use any of these to define the creative industries; none are widely adopted, all are contested in some way or other. For me, the distinguishing between activities within each industry sector by commercial intent is a missing element.

A model which recognises commercial intent

Every subset of the creative industries includes activities which are driven by commercial intent, and some which are not. For the purposes of definition, we might consider that only those with commercial intent truly sit within an ‘industry’, with its connotations of producing a product to a profitable end. Activities with little or no commercial intent can be seen as artistically valid – even essential – but their lack of connection to industry could allow us to classify them differently.

The level of commercial intent within each industry subsector will vary. Some, like architecture, exist almost entirely within the for-profit arena. Others, like visual arts, straddle between not-for-profit and for-profit activities.

My diagram below (not based on real numbers) is an attempt to illustrate this proposition. Each subsector is represented by a column, showing 100% of that subsector’s activity. The position of each column indicates the estimated proportion of each sector which is commercially driven. Under this model, we might see the ‘creative industries’ as existing only in the upper band.

sharpe

For my purposes – thinking about entrepreneurialism in the creative industries – such a model could be very useful. If we start with the idea that a critical component of entrepreneurship is driven by commercial intent, the definition used could exclude activity in the creative industries which although artistically valuable, lacks that commercial intent. It might save us from having to argue the centrality of the arts – or any other creative endeavour – with the creative industries. But it would also require a debate about what qualifies as commercially driven product, and how much of that commercial intent resides in each industry subsector.

Ref: O’Connor, Justin (2010)
The cultural and creative industries : a literature review [2nd ed.].
Creativity, Culture and Education Series.
Creativity, Culture and Education, London.

Exploring and exploiting: a creative management paradox

This article has the brain bending title Managing exploration and exploitation paradoxes in creative organisations, which might suggest a discussion far removed from the practicalities of running a business in the creative industries. But in fact, it’s talking about a fundamental tension which lies within most, if not all, creative enterprises.

That tension arises from the inherent difference between the concepts of creativity and industry. Creativity is about exploration; producing new products through the creative process. That’s often long, unpredictable and difficult to control.

Industry (perhaps better described as the commercialisation of those products) is about exploitation. Make a product repeatable, divine a business model which generates profit and you have the basis of a sustainable business. The skills needed to manage these two disciplines are both contradictory and necessary. Therein lies the paradox.

I’m familiar with the need to balance the creative and the management aspects of a business through my work with creative industry companies, but I’ve not seen it expressed as neatly as the explore/exploit paradox. Within organisations large enough to employ staff, this paradox is often managed through compartmentalisation of roles (a design studio, for example, may well divide staff between creative, production and sales roles) and recruitment (employing people with the appropriate skills for each). For this reason, creative industry companies can often be melting pots of personality types.

Individual creatives and sole traders though have to manage this paradox by and within themselves. They must be both explorer and exploiter. How do creatives manage this without going mad? (And though I use that term flippantly, I think there is a considerable mental strain in having to be both those very different things).

I think that creatives who build successful businesses procure the management skills they need in certain ways. They can find those skills within themselves, lying latent until employed by necessity. They can acquire those skills through training and personal development. Or they can find others to undertake those tasks for them. But somehow, they must access those skills.

The authors then say there are a “three responses that individual managers can have to paradox: acceptance; differentiation/integration; and accommodation”

Acceptance involves embracing conflict without seeking to resolve it… Differentiation and integration is a cycling process whereby managers iterate between alternative patterns. Differentiation involves delineating alternate domains and serving each one separately, whereas
integration involves re-connecting domains into a meaningful whole… Accommodation reconciles both elements of opposition in “novel, creative synergy”… For example, Rothenberg (1979) suggested that creative artists like Mozart merged paradoxical demands to create new conceptions.

The option which seems closest to what I see in practice is differentiation/integration. Even within large organisations, there’s usually a CEO who started out as a creative (which I talk about here) and who needs to practice the flipping of modes between explorer and exploiter on a personal level all the time. They are, I guess, practicing an internal version of differentiation/integration on an hourly basis. Perhaps that’s one of the hallmarks of creative entrepreneurship.

Ref: Eric Knight , Will Harvey , “Managing exploration and exploitation paradoxes in creative organisations”, Management Decision, Vol. 53 Iss: 4, pp.809 – 827

 

 

 

 

Is bricolage a thing? And do creatives own it?

I had to consult dictionary.com for this one. Bricolage is “a construction made of whatever materials are at hand; something created from a variety of available things”. And this paper says that there’s an entrepreneurial bricolage which is employed by creative industries ‘actors’ which distinguishes their efforts. The author defines it as:

“something that is available at a given time which can be tapped into as needed to access diverse talents and resources to create what could not be otherwise possible …in a resource and institutionally constrained environment” … People working in the creative industry seem to naturally adopt a sub-form of bricolage, namely collaborative bricolage. Therefore, collaborative bricolage is defined as a relationship where people work with each other to make the most of what is available, but it transcends the short-term goal of getting the job done for one specific project.

There is some parallel here between the creative process (which involves the juxtaposition of a variety of elements available to hand to produce something new) and the process of running a creative business (often characterised by holding the whole thing together with both hands and sticky tape).

But I’m not sure that this is unique to creative industries. Wouldn’t any number of entrepreneurs feel they their lives are full of bricolage? Which of those ‘non creative’ business owners feel they have 100% of the skills, resources and opportunities to achieve what they want to?

This makes me recall a long running yet never concluded conversation between me and another business adviser about preciousness – the tendency for creative industries to see themselves as different from other industries. Are they really? Aren’t they all just businesses and business people? Does this prevailing preciousness get in the way of the creative industries generating the same attention and respect as other industry sectors?

Bricolage is an interesting element, and I suspect an experience common across many industries and many other walks of life. But to me, what makes a creative business distinct from its non-creative counterparts is that it generates profits (well, that’s the plan) from products and services out of original creative IP. How does entrepreneurialism express itself in that environment? Which parts of this are widespread and which parts are particular to creative industries?

I am just full of questions tonight.

 

 

 

 

Story as an element of success

So the AFR runs an article about how leaders use storytelling to get their message across. And I imagine it’s a really good match for its readership; there’s an ongoing interest in what business people are doing to succeed. Who has the secret to success and what is they do? Is it mindfulness? Is it design thinking? Do they work four hours a day? Do they work shoeless? (I can’t remember if the working shoeless thing was something I actually read somewhere or a spoof article I threatened to write one day.)

We can add storytelling to that list. And there are a variety of people wanting to help. This article lists three consultancies designed to help business people tell their stories. There’s a market in helping smart, successful people tell stories.

We seem to want leaders who are polymaths. It’s not enough that you’ve excelled in your field or you employ a lot of people, we now expect you to also be able to tell stories which excite and inspire. I can imagine this could be challenging, if there’s been no exposure to storytelling in your training or work experience.

In a marketing sense, this article and the consultants featured in it, are positioning storytelling as an element of success. But they are also manufacturing a problem to solve. If one of the ingredients for success is communication, and you’re rubbish at it, then you should fix that. Immediately! Right after jogging 20km before breakfast, hitting your revenue target for the month and distributing home made muffins around the office.

Storytelling as a corporate must-have.

 

 

 

 

 

Stories: types and purpose

As a consultant, you get used to having a go-to set of examples for a range of different situations. Got an HR problem? Here’s one another client had and how they overcame it. Customers won’t pay? How about trying this which has worked for me. Need to change your organisation’s culture? It’ll be slow and gradual, like turning a big ship around.

Reading this article, about seven types of stories leaders should tell, made me consider this grab bag of examples again. I hadn’t considered them as “stories”. Though, of course, they are. Interestingly, mine mostly fall into the categories outlined in this article.

They are targetted stories. They are designed to illustrate a problem, illuminate a solution, establish credentials, build rapport and yes, sell services.

Perhaps storytelling, at a business level, is intrinsically about selling. Selling a product, or an internal change, or an idea. Even the act of convincing itself is sometimes expressed in terms of selling and storytelling. When a government’s policy agenda is unpopular, you’ll hear commentators say, “they’ve been unable to sell their narrative” or “they couldn’t sell that idea to the public”.

So types of stories, yes. But how they’re deployed – to convince, cajole, entice, reassure. Is it all just selling in the end?