School Blog

Om Nom Nom Nom Nominations

We've been nominated for the UK Catalyst Awards, in the Self-Help category. Hurray!

And as if that weren't enough, we're also finalists for the New Statesman New Media Awards, in the Inform and Educate category.

More news as soon as we have it...

Welcome Sangeet

We're very pleased to welcome Sangeet Gyawali to Team Everything. He'll be working on design and usability, and has already kicked off with some great ideas.

He tried to hide when we pointed a camera at him, so here's a picture of the very, very large Mac he'll be working at instead.

Semler for startups

We've been looking around for inspiration about how to make School of Everything an amazing place to work. One fantastic story is that of Semco in Brazil. When Ricardo Semler inherited the company in the early 1980s he began to wonder why democracy was something that was talked about in relation to government but never to companies.

Early on, he tried things like letting the employees choose the colour of paint in the factories. But as the workers starting taking control of more and more, Semco began to experiment in startling ways. The company started to let employees choose their own salaries. They said there should only be managers where employees deemed they needed them. They did away with secretaries and as many 'menial' jobs as they could. And perhaps most importantly, they did away with the traditional hierarchical pyramid of decision making. Almost no decisions were taken by the company board - they were taken by the employees themselves.

Of course there are some big differences between Semco and School of Everything so it doesn't all apply to us. When Semler took over Semco it was a large, established company with very simple metrics of success. School of Everything is a very small, start-up company. In many ways that gives us an advantage because we don't have to convince anybody that the old ways of doing things need to change. But it also means that at this stage we're really just setting the conditions for future growth. So what are we doing?

Well first of all, we have a policy of having open books. All the company finances are available for anybody in the team to look at. Then anybody can come to our Monday meeting with an idea for spending money. If they can convince the team it's worth a try, we go for it. All our salaries are also open. Everybody knows what everybody else is getting paid. And finally, later in the year when we do a salary review, salaries will be set and agreed by the whole team, not by the management.

There are a few other things we do that help - mainly to improve communication. Perhaps the most successful is that we have lunch together every day. It's amazing how much information you can share just by spending some time together away from the screens.

It's just a start, and we know we will sometimes struggle to blend decisiveness and democracy. But we think it's important to make School of Everything a place where everybody shares responsibility for decision making.

What else do you think we should we be doing? Or are we mad to be trying to put Semler into practice in a start-up?

  • Ricardo Semler's book Maverick is available here
  • You can download a Demos pamphlet I wrote called Disorganisation for free here
  • Read about Pat Kane's Play Ethic (which was a massive influence on Disorganisation) here.
  • And you can find out more about workplace democracy in this article by WorldBlu's Traci Fenton.

Lost teacher turns up at Everything HQ

Everything HQ had a surprise visit this afternoon - all the way from Lithuania.

Darius Damalakas, a programmer and School of Everything teacher, flew over for a tech conference - or so he thought.

"I turned up at the venue," he explained, "but when I sat down in what I thought was the first session I suddenly realised I'd gatecrashed an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting".

It turned out that the conference date had changed - but they hadn't bothered to tell him. So having come all the way from Lithuania, and finding himself at a loose end, he decided to come and say hello to Team Everything.

We've put him up on Dougald's sofa, and he'll be joining us at Minibar tonight. If you're heading to Minibar, come and help us redeem the London tech meetup world by buying him a beer.

We're at MiniBar tomorrow!

The Science Department will be at Minibar tomorrow night.

Andy and Russ during the infamous Recorder Incident at Interesting 2008

They're being very cagey about what they're presenting. I can't promise recorders or lab coats. But it's more likely to include barbershop harmony than Powerpoint slides, which can only be a good thing.

If you're there, come and say hello!

All 2gether Now

Team Everything is much looking forward to next week's 2gether08 conference. Two days of talks, workshops, experiments and great people, plus the New Statesman New Media Awards" (which we've been nominated for), and a launch event for 4IP, Channel 4's new social technology fund - it's going to be busy, exciting and fun.

Look out for Paul on the Who Needs Government Anyway? panel, where he'll be discussing the way social enterprise is beginning to take the government on at its own game. And Team Everything will also be in the Common Room area at various points during the two days, hosting The Five-Minute Teach - supercharged mini-sessions where you can learn something in five minutes.

Come and say hello! Even better, come and teach something. We've also still got a few slots free - if you've got an idea for something you could teach in five minutes, then email mary [at] school of everything dot com.

The Interesting Machine

Last Saturday a lot of interesting people descended on Conway Hall for the day of joy that was Interesting 2008.

We were invited by Interesting organiser Russell Davies to do something interesting in the lobby. So, using materials close to hand (such as lab coats and ancient modems) we made an Interesting Machine.

We made some antique-looking punchcard type things:

And a very high-tech box with a slot that you could feed them into:

Then we put on our Lab Coats Of Everything, and invited people to write things they were interested in onto punchcards:

Then we ran the Interesting Machine.

By the end of the day we'd done several batch processes, and matched people up into groups according to what they were interested in.

Elsewhere during the day, Andy and Russ joined lots of other people in a nursery rhyme variation in the minimal style, scored for very amateur recorder orchestra (video here, at your own risk).

We had lots of fun. So many thanks to Russell for inviting us, and to all the people who shared what they were interested in with the Machine!

Interesting!

We're heading to Interesting 2008 tomorrow. We're taking some vintage tech.

That's all I can tell you right now. But if you're there, come and say hello!

Top of the Pops

We've seen several orchestras' worth of music teachers joining the site this month – but if piano lessons aren't your thing, there are some more unusual instruments on offer. To give you inspiration, I put together a School of Everything hit parade. Hold onto your hats for a musical rollercoaster…

10. And just squeaking into the top ten, we have VICTORIA HARTLEY up in Peterhead with the Recorder. Not the most exotic choice, perhaps - but I haven't played one since I was 9. Do you think there's a maximum age limit?

9. Turning up the tempo, we've got London boy and DJ master ALLAN OKELLO on his Turntables. You'll have to get in line for this one. I've had decks for 18 months, but choosing a record and pressing play doesn't really make me a DJ…

8. It's Manchester's SARAH STUART on the Folk Fiddle. What's the difference between a fiddle and a violin? This is not a joke; I'd really like to know. I don't want all the fiddlers to hit the roof, though.

7. Ah, good, it's MARTIN GOODSON of Oxford with the Congas. Calling all wannabe Congueros! This one is for you. Let's all learn the congas, let's all learn the congas, la la la la oi, la la la la oi...

6. Next up, in St Andrews, we have SIMON CHADWICK on the Medieval Harp. Ancient music is so hot right now - I won't harp on about it…

5. In Leeds, MOHAMED ASSANI with the Sitar. So-called because you can't play it standing up. (As opposed to the git-ar, which you can only play if you're extremely annoying.)

4. Not just for the Scots, here's JAIMIE GIBB of Bromley and the Scottish Bagpipes. Please be reminded that School of Everything takes no responsibility for the reaction of your neighbours.

3. Move over Rolf Harris, because in at number three we have Londoner JONATHAN COPE on Didgeridoo. A 2005 study in the British Medical Journal found that learning the didge helped reduce snoring and sleep apnea.

2. A real rarity in second place - all the way from Plymouth, Indiana - it's MARCY PROCHASKA with the Hammered Dulcimer, an ancient trapezoidal musical instrument with several courses of strings, played with hammers. And if you knew that without having to Google it, you did better than me.

1. And finally, continuing the toolkit theme, the number one spot goes to (drum roll please), CHARLES HINDMARSH of Yorkshire and his Musical Saw. Now that's what I call cutting edge!

That's all for this week, pop pickers! We'll be back to find out if Charles can hold on to the top spot... Or will he be dislodged by a surprise new entry? How about a Theremin tutor - or a Washboard instructor? And somebody out there must be able to teach us how to play the Spoons. Take it away, boys…

A Funny Business?

When I was doing a talk at a conference last week, a number of people thought it was strange that School of Everything was set up as a company. So I thought it might be worth setting out why we chose this structure and some of the things we've built into the model that make us a bit different.

Legally speaking School of Everything is a company limited by shares registered in England and Wales. It's the most common form for any company in the UK and the form that almost any internet start-up here takes.

The reason we chose that structure is the flexibility it gives. This comes from the way that you raise money as a company - in our case through investment. When you go out for early stage investment you start with what you (as founders) want to do. Then you get investment when you meet investors who share your worldview and believe that your idea and the way you plan to go about making it real will work.

If, by contrast, you set yourself up as a not-for-profit or charity and choose to apply for grants, you start from an application form with questions on it. We tried a few but found ourselves straining to fit the criteria of another organisation. It made us think do we actually want this money anyway?

We chose not to be a community interest company because of the extra administrative burden it adds (and there seems to be more confusion about how to make it work as very few organisations have done it so far). Neither are we a social business as Muhammad Yunus has defined the term, because we haven't chosen to limit the return our investors get back to what they put in.

The other advantage of being a straight-forward company is we get talked about as a 'silicon valley-esque' startup. We were chosen as one of the 20 most promising start-ups in Europe for Seedcamp last year. And some Techcrunch coverage has cemented that impression. But it's not quite as simple as that. We still have some scepticism about the silicon valley model of investment. Umair Haque is raising the right questions in this article.

The way we've made sure we keep true to our original mission is to choose our investors carefully. They include a charity (the Young Foundation) and a public service broadcaster (Channel 4) who, while they want to see a return on their investments, have social motivations written into their organisational DNA that fit very closely with our motivations as founders.

We're very happy with the way that things are working out so far but I'd be very interested to hear what others think about the way we've chosen to do things. Is setting up a company the best way for us to change the world?