Broken economies, an economic thought, freelancer advice

A few of you who know me have caught more than a whiff of my increasingly sour mood over the state of many of our ‘developed’ economies. Between the bailouts of Greece, Ireland and Portugal, Italy about ready for a bail-out, Spain with 22% unemployment who might also need a bail-out (but…the EU packages can’t cover both countries needing a bail-out [scroll down to ‘the tower of terror’ diagram] – hence the jittery bond markets), Portuguese and Hungarian debt marked at junk status, Belgian‘s credit rating cut (after their embarrassing bail-out for Dexia which had passed #hoho all the stress tests earlier in the year) it is hard to be positive. The Economist and others now cover serious discussion about a possible end to the Euro.

The Economist also notes that there’s a reasonable chance we’re falling back into recession. It seems that end of Jan and Feb for Italy’s next round of bond auctions could make for very interesting events.

In the US Thanksgiving has been given over Black Friday (to get companies back in ‘the black’), this year the event aced all previous years with the deployment of pepperspray and guns by ‘competitive shoppers’ (such a wonderful euphemism! they can camp overnight and use weapons in the name of shopping but Occupy protesters can do neither in the name of protest). This video showing fights breaking out as shoppers try to win $2 waffle toasters brings it home. Still, at least the Super Committee figured out a way to get past the $15 trillion (and growing) debt pile. Oh, no, they didn’t, they just finger pointed and handed the problem back.

In the USA the losers are the private citizens, the winners are the companies. Over the last 50 years corporate profits are up and personal salary (as a percentage of GDP) is down (the key graphic) – if you run a big company you’ll be sitting pretty, everyone else has to work longer and harder just to stand still.

But it isn’t all grim. Interesting conversations are popping up questioning the basis for our financial systems, it is nice to see people try to plot new ways through to stronger economies or point out our too-relaxed view on recent changes. This begs the question – what happens when we can chart the progression of money (because maybe it is signed a la bitcoin), maybe we can penalise money for sitting still (e.g. letting it expire/evaporate)? The idea of enabling both the creation and destruction of money (in the first article) sounds novel, we rarely see money destroyed as a stabilising act (as in – removed from the system entirely) with our established currencies.  Might this force money to do ‘work’ rather than sit in someone’s bank account?

Finally, this brings me to the question of what one should be doing as a freelancer/small business owner. In a companion post (to come out by Monday) I’ll mention that we’re off to StartupChile for 6 months. For me I’m energised at the idea that in Santiago I can meet several hundred other company founders who have all decided to jump country (from all over the world) to expand their networks, help the locals boot-strap a tech ecosystem and build their companies. Taking risks and changing things around seems like a basic requirement for survival and growth in what’ll become a tougher economic environment (talk of a lost decade or two for the Western economies is now quite common).

Prior to applying to StartupChile I’d already started to build StrongSteam, our new AI/data mining product, with my old co-founder from ShowMeDo (our last big project). The goal is help folk create interesting data mining applications and to make my AI Consultancy more visible (just building and talking on it has increased in-bound work referrals by a factor of 4 in the last few months). Being visible and being fresh is absolutely critical to continued success. A couple of years back I’d realised I was getting stale (‘fat and slow’ as I put it) working for a few known clients. I fired myself for 6 months, built the AICookbook project (now defunct, it served its purpose), co-founded SocialTies and kicked myself into a higher gear.

Some takehomes:

  • If you’re not visible enough yet, take some time out and work on open and visible projects
  • If you’ve become stale then fire some clients and work on new challenges (preferably public ones)
  • Get on stage and talk about what you’ve learned, certainly post blog entries sharing what you’ve learned – being visible is key
  • If you’ve got spare time then dive into new projects, don’t wait to become stale (a mistake I made that cost me 6 months!)
  • Join local groups – we’ve got OpenCoffeeSussex here, plenty of tech groups, HackerNewsLondon an hour’s train ride away – meet new people and collaborate
  • Build alliances with companies you like to work with, help them, partner with them

I figure that’s enough with the ranting, noting it down  is cathartic. Now, back to building StrongSteam.

Hat-tip to @umairh as being the main person to open my eyes to the need to question how the world works over the last bunch of years. I’m much obliged to you. @johnrobb‘s resilient community work is also rather interesting.

Ian is a Chief Interim Data Scientist via his Mor Consulting. Sign-up for Data Science tutorials in London and to hear about his data science thoughts and jobs. He lives in London, is walked by his high energy Springer Spaniel and is a consumer of fine coffees.