The rise of the ad-hoc company

Some years ago (1998 or so), seeing the future looming, I hypothesized a move toward ad-hoc workgroups, forming and disbanding on the fly many times during the day. People would pull in their friends to solve problems or brainstorm or contribute, then go their separate ways, in groups that overlap and subset each other and generally are a lot more flexible than a traditional work group.

Wind forward a decade and a half, and the future has become a reality.

Ad-hoc Every Day

Every day there is a new attempt to enable this sort of workflow–which has, with a generation raised on constant SMS contact, become more familiar and more desirable. Google Hangouts, Facebook’s ubiquitous chat, and social review sites.

Want to build a website, but you aren’t the strongest at visual design? Chat up your graphic designer buddy for half an hour of chatting, or send him a feedback request on RedPen. Get feedback from more folks on Dribbble. Need to work on a thorny CSS problem? Pop it in JSFiddle or CodePen and get your buddies to bang on it. Post a tough question on Stack Overflow and get expert answers in minutes. Or just tweet about it, and have people chime in. All in a single afternoon.

(I’m in the design field, so the examples I have are centered around that. Are there these sorts of social review sites in your field?)

Got a longer project? Manage it on PivotalTracker or RedMine or Trello, letting collaborators come in and out on their own schedule, asynchronously. Host it on GitHub and leverage the entire ‘net–and let others build on your project.

These technologies enable all sorts of wonderful, opportunistic interactions, which make very efficient use of scarce, expert resources.

The ‘real world’ is a drag: money, property, and liability

But many (most?) employers are still not comfortable with this–and we haven’t quite worked out how to monetize it yet. There’s the wage-slave version with the Mechanical Turk, but for creative work, it’s more challenging.

While there are plenty of apps to track freelance time contributions, generally you still need to present a unified bill to a client, or have a single entity paid out by the distributor. Customers want to pay money to a persistent identity of some sort, even if the people behind the company name change.

Then you need to split the earnings among the team manually. (A bit like splitting the hoard after slaying a dragon, perhaps?)¬†Deciding who gets what share of the IP can likewise be challenging. Your graphic designer buddy–does he get a cut? How much? Or is it just noise, and you owe him one?

And there’s a lack of comfort on the legal side–who is liable for this work? How do you ensure a release schedule? Who knows about the work? How do you protect trade secrets in such an environment?

These issues have been worked out before–this is why corporations were invented. And for more fluid collaborations, there are plenty of models to draw on, from artist’s collectives to musical supergroups to publishing houses.

Maybe it’s time to encode some of this structure into a social website–a way to generate legally binding collaborations, even if it only lasts an afternoon.

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2 thoughts on “The rise of the ad-hoc company

  1. Bear in mind the productivity loss from context-switching; it takes me a good part of a day to get back into a medium-size codebase I haven’t looked at in months, and at least 15 minutes to resume work after a sizeable interruption.

  2. I love the idea and see the short-term version as great for brainstorming, airing ideas, and getting opinions. I’ve worked in a longer-term, although contract-mediated and collocated, version as a sub-(…)contractor where the projects lasted anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

    One of the challenges I’m working on these days is the gains to be had from solid team formation, something that only happens quickly with people who have done it before or are the beneficiaries of incredible luck. Open source does a great job of coordinating a large number of individual efforts. Can we leverage any of this for deep collaboration?

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