[Noisebridge-board] Moving, liability, etc (was Re: To Geoff Re: Buildout cost estimates)

Geoff Schmidt geoff at geoffschmidt.com
Mon Jul 20 15:46:16 PDT 2009


Thanks for your email, David. I've thought about what you said and  
tried to infer from it what kind of response you might like from me.  
Here's an attempt, though I don't know if I've done a good job at  
inferring:

If you can really keep the buildout to $6k, then it sounds like you've  
found a great solution. But that's going to mean taking the space with  
only minor changes (for example, not much in the way of walls.) Based  
on my own experience pricing out work, I wonder if the membership  
understands that at $6k, they won't get a lot of what they've been  
dreaming of. I also wonder if the $6k really includes a sufficient  
contingency margin, as this is often a mistake that people make when  
writing construction budgets. Also, I worry that a particular failure  
scenario could happen. In this scenario, everyone agrees on a $6k- 
style plan, and budgets the $6k. But everyone imagines that the rest  
of the work they want will be done later; they don't mentally accept  
the disappointment of not getting the full buildout they want at the  
same time as the mentally congratulate themselves for having made a  
financially reasonable plan. The lease is signed and $6k is spent.  
Then, one of two things happen. Either the additional work is never  
done and people have to deal with the disappointment of not getting  
the space they were hoping for. Or attempts are made to do the work  
later, and things come out not as well as if a fully understood plan  
had been made up front that was realistic about what people wanted to  
eventually make happen. "Not as well" could mean that the work has to  
be done on the cheap to a point that doesn't make sense in a price/ 
performance context, because the financial implications of the  
buildout weren't understood up front and dealt with head-on. Maybe  
people would look back and say, "if we had understood how much it was  
realistically going to cost in total to get what we want, we would  
have made a different decision." The different decision might have  
been to delay the move, to raise dues, to have a membership drive, to  
move to a smaller space, to make a different buildout plan -- I don't  
know; this a hypothetical situation. Or "not as well" could mean that  
the work is done bit by bit over a long period of time, finished only  
just as the lease expires. In that case people might look back and  
say, "I wish we had understood up front what the scope of the work  
was, because had we done so, we would have hunkered down, worked  
really hard on making detailed plans even though it was frustrating,  
been creative, and come up with some way to get the buildout done in  
the first month. Some sacrifices or compromises might have had to be  
made, but in retrospect, we can see that they would have been worth  
it." Again, a hypothetical.

You can do the work legally, or not. I'll define "legally" to mean "an  
anonymous phone call by a disgruntled troll cannot cause Noisebridge  
to get evicted or incur more than $10k of unexpected expenses." If  
Noisebridge is to do the work illegally, I hope that everyone fully  
understands the consequences of that. I worry that because of their  
background living on the fringe of society, some members tend to see  
Noisebridge as a legally second-class organization that doesn't  
deserve the same protection of law that other organizations in America  
enjoy. I hope that before a decision is made, someone ensures that the  
membership understands that (1) disasters like the anonymous phone  
call scenario happen with distressing frequency in SF to semi- 
underground organizations that take these risks, more than many people  
realize, so that the question is closer to when than if, and (2)  
Noisebridge is not so different from other organizations that it  
cannot have legal protection if it is willing to study and follow the  
standard ways of getting it, that it doesn't "not deserve" protection  
for being countercultural. Those standard ways include a bunch of  
things that are designed to fit together: following the law or  
understanding it well enough to bound the penalties, bringing in  
subject area experts to help you, using financing tools to manage your  
cash situation, recruiting business advisors to help you put it  
together.

I've tried to insert enough qualifying phrases in the above paragraph  
to make it clear that I'm not advocating for a legal or an illegal  
approach. I just hope that someone is able to get enough information  
to understand the full advantages and disadvantages of each option  
(which I don't think anyone has yet, though I could be wrong.. on the  
contrary, I think there is actually more to be understood here than  
many people realize, and I'm worried that that misconception is  
getting in the way of full understanding), and that that someone is  
then able to educate the membership prior to pursuing consensus.

With respect to my comments about management, perhaps it's helpful to  
engage in a thought exercise. Let's imagine an alternate-reality  
version of Noisebridge called Racketlink. Racketlink is just like  
Noisebridge and has the same values and membership of Noisebridge, but  
alternate-reality Executive Director Jake Appelbaum has a different  
life history. Instead of being an anarchist and satanist, Alt-Jake had  
been the CEO of mid-sized financial services dotcom, sat on the boards  
of several 501(c)3s dedicated to mundane community outreach programs,  
and generally was a tool of the establishment if not the establishment  
himself. (Not that this incompatible with anarchism and satanism.. but  
I digress.) While fully invested in the doocracy and the consensus  
process, Alt-Jake takes the role of ED very seriously. He thinks that  
his role in the doocracy is to hold Racketlink to the same operational  
standards that his VCs insisted on, and that as a board member he  
requires of the management of the c(3)s he helps to oversee. So when  
Racketlink decides that it wants to expand to a new building, he  
guides it through a process that is just like the process that a low- 
income legal counseling charity he advises had gone through in the  
previous quarter. Alt-Jake doesn't take it upon himself to manage the  
process like a traditional ED would, but with a suggestion here, a  
word of thanks there, a cogent argument in another place, he helps  
people see the practical advantages of the structures he's learned,  
and he subtly encourages people to volunteer for certain roles and  
massages the occasional interpersonal conflict. A systematic attempt  
is made to solicit everyone's desires in a new space; a small group  
synthesizes this into a document, then works with everyone to refine  
it until they are all happy and pleased with the group's work. It's  
determined how much Racketlink can afford to spend under several  
different financing scenarios. An architect familiar with city  
requirements and friendly to Racketlink's goals is recruited as an  
informal advisor. Someone takes point in working with brokers.  
Informal estimates are obtained from contractors on each of several  
spaces to understand what is within Racketlink's budget. Finally,  
three representative plans are written up, involving two different  
locations. Each includes a sketch of the built-out space and major  
renovation items; a buildout and operating budget accurate to 20%; a  
rough timeline with a two-week margin of error, based on quick chats  
with contractors and people who've done DIY builds; a financing or  
fundraising scenario; an understanding of the required membership  
growth to support the space; a list of special risk factors -- but  
nothing in great detail, totaling maybe 3-4 pages. Even before the  
plans are discussed, all the members feel that their ideas have been  
included in the plans, so they're grateful for the work that was done  
to prepare them rather than anxious that others might be trying to  
exert authority over them. This is because of active work that was  
done to solicit comments, identify interested people, and build  
consensus among them. After a period of discussion, the membership  
agrees to proceed with a combination of elements from two plans.

When I think about Racketlink, I think about the huge amount of work  
that Alt-Jake did. When (hypothetically) Alt-Jake did a similar  
expansion at his dotcom, it was much easier, because (1) he had  
employees instead of volunteers; (2) he got to pick which employees he  
hired; (3) people's expectations were different and he didn't have to  
do as much work to emotionally reassure them; (4) if people were ever  
uncooperative or unhelpful, he had the option of using the big hammer.  
On the other hand, his work wasn't wasted; it had benefits beyond the  
expansion that were very much in the scope of Racketlink's mission.  
Maybe Alt-Jake can never be real because there is no one who put in  
that amount of time when they could be working on more objectively  
rewarding problems. To see how much work it is, I only need to look at  
how hard several people have been working on building consensus for  
the move. Meanwhile on the other hand, surely Alt-Jake would look at  
Noisebridge and think, "these guys sure have a long way to go before  
they will be able to put forth a plan that I will not block, yet  
they've already put so much time and effort into the project. I wonder  
what factors have led to this and if they are addressable." I suspect  
that many observers would encourage Noisebridge to keep the phone  
number of someone like Alt-Jake around so that it could be aware of  
this perspective, even if it did not want or could not induce Alt-Jake  
to participate.

Racketlink is just a thought experiment, and Noisebridge might be  
better off as Noisebridge. Certainly it is more interesting and breaks  
more ground as Noisebridge. It's my hope that as time passes,  
Noisebridge will acquire more and more of the good planning and  
operational efficiency of Racketlink, without losing the structure and  
culture that makes it Noisebridge. On the other hand, I suspect that  
some people prefer that Noisebridge not change in this way, or at  
least would prefer it to change slowly so that they feel more  
comfortable. It seems like Noisebridge should do whatever is the best  
fit for the needs of its members, but I hope that that's determined  
with the broadest possible perspective and awareness of the  
alternatives.

Geoff



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