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Hub Culture Salon: The Way Forward, San Francisco

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29th Apr 2009

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Courtesy innpictime (suddenly preoccupied)
Even as the economic malaise continues to sap the energy of the global community, a few "green shoots" are starting to appear in the economy, giving some much needed hope to the business sector.

With that in mind, Hub Culture recently convened a group of members in San Francisco for a dinner salon examining the general state of affairs and 'the way forward'. Joining the discussion were the following:

Robin Beers, Wells Fargo

Dean Hutchinson, Mi Inc

Amy Finn, brand strategy

Tina Frank, Hub Culture

Aaron Kahlow, Online Marketing Summit

Lisa Lent, Oxylent

Meredith White, San Francisco Chronicle

Katie Hafner - journalist, New York Times featured writer

Dinner kicked off at Le Colonial, a buzzy downtown restaurant. In a dimly lit white room at a center placed table, the group tucked into a variety of seafood and pasta based dishes as Lisa kicked off the conversation. "Never give up on your dreams, always persevere," was her message.

A former professional traveler, Lisa launched Oxylent, a multivitamin supplement designed to boost immunity and wellbeing in mobile people. Despite the downturn in the economy she not only found international financing for her project, but launched a fully produced vitamin/electrolyte product that is increasingly flying off the shelves.

Key insight? It took several tries and over seven years to get to market, and two things made it happen: she never quit, and eventually she found a patron.

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Le Colonial, San Francisco
Dean is something of his own patron. The fashion designer had two stores in Los Angeles and San Francisco that closed in 2007 as the economy began to drift south. The loss accelerated his thinking on "philosophy of attachment theroy" - how we create identity through attachment. His conclusion was that in fashion, we are focusing on the wrong attachments (labels) instead of letting our true selves shine through. This thinking led to the creation of Mi - a new non-brand that fits super well with the emerging zeitgeist of discreet quality merged with post label consumerism. Very raw.

Made in Toronto, Dean says Mi "is all about seeing you as yourself" - removing the labels and brand from the objects to let the owner revel in themselves.

Tina took the big picture that reflects her political work for California leaders like Maria Shriver and others: "The world has turned upside down, now its all coming up from the bottom" she began. In politics, resulting partly from the Obama movement and social networks, "everyone has a voice, and you can affect change now from the bottom up." 

Tina sees this grassroots, end-point visibility as critical to economic recovery, citing the new industries that could emerge from the depths of the recession as being more collaborative and end-point driven.

"It's money: depression is the accelerator," contributed Aaron. His tech background led to a contrarian view, but on Obama he was big on the change bottom up theme. Aaron shared how he was able to accelerate his fundraising using social networks and how today his network of VC and tech related events, the Online Marketing Summit, span the nation. 

You also need customers, but in a world with no money, how do we pay? Amy Finn, a leading brand strategist, talked about the rise of barter for services, a phenomenon rapidly gaining traction among US professionals. With more downtime, people are trading and bartering services to help each other and to take up the slack time - meaning that we are finding new ways to get what we need "off the grid."

At the moment, Wells Fargo is busy digesting its aquisition of Wachovia, a move that took the bank from 160,000 to over 270,000 employees. An an institution, Wells Fargo has suddenly moved to the national stage and a leadership role, and the bank is busy trying to figure out how customers are not only reacting to the new realities of the economy, but how to help them do more with what they have. "Listening to the customer is mandatory," said Robin, emphasizing that this first point of action should be the way forward for every business.

"We're at a precipice and can revert back to business as usual or move into something new" she added, noting that the bank is closely studying everything from P2P banking to other novel forms of commerce. It has also quietly assisted functionality for emerging web finance ranging from Kiva to Paypal.

Here the conversation took a darker turn, as Meredith and Katie, both seasoned journalists, examined the way forward for the weary newspaper and media industry.

Meredith mentioned "renaissance journalism", the emergence (again!) of patrons, who may help newspapers maintain their high editorial standards and journalistic teams out of a sense of civic responsibility coupled with strategic long views. And everyone in the industry is studying micropayments, which may work well for content on the web, but obviously not so well for the newspaper in your front yards.

It is nobody's doubt that US newspapers are in crisis. Where we get our news from is changing. As a dedicated journalist, Katie says she "will never be anything else" and believes strongly "in the importance of a trained journalist whom you can trust".

"It's like we are throwing journalism in the air and waiting to see what lands," she says of the moment. Two trends look likely: the rise of a supernewspaper, some web based aggregation of local journalism, and a move to 'hyper-local' - newspapers that intensely cover the very local area, online and off.

Aaron summed up a collective view that took seed with the group: we are in a fundamental shift. MBAs are working for free for sweat equity, because no other jobs exist. In some parts of California, the unemployment rate is up to 14% - so people are re-evaluating what's important for them. If there are no jobs, why not just do something you believe in? "Its a beautiful time to start a business" he contends. Robin feels creativity is in crisis as we move from a well funded world to a world that needs to show instant or near-instant returns, but as Tina highlighted - the emerging power of the crowd to sustain and fund these innovations is stronger than ever.

That means one way forward is the fade of corporate/VC hegemony and the dawn of a newly networked economy - one where patrons help spark the big new ideas and the networked crowd then bring them to life.