What is the meta question?
- How big should Free Geek get?
In a nutshell, yes. But we are now large enough to think about it a bit more than in the past. In the past, we've grown in response to:
- financial crises (e.g. losing out on an expected grant),
- increased demand for existing services (e.g. people signing up for free computers), and
- demand for new programs (e.g. finally starting to grant hardware out to nonprofits).
All along there was very little planning. More often than not, we were reacting to crises and Free Geek grew however it had to in order to solve the problems at hand. So another way to ask the meta question is:
- How should Free Geek get big?
And of course this implies another question:
- Should Free Geek get big?
Why are we talking about this now?
Over the years, we've mostly done stuff because we had to, reacting to emergency situations as they came up and forming our policy out of necessity. We think it's time to think ahead and start deciding where we want to go.
There are three driving forces that seem to have made Free Geek grow and change over its history. We've reacted to these forces as they push issues forward, without always looking at the big picture. It might behoove us to pay attention to the overall long term impact of these smaller decisions. Here are some example from past and present:
- Responses to financial crises
- Creating a store to create a sales income stream led to a new staff position and eventually an intern position
- Implementing a $10 monitor fee led to a need to track that fee, costing staff and volunteer time and energy and vigilance
- Some of our income streams seem to be partially dependent on how often we are open (sales, donations, and monitor fees mostly). Therefore one way to increase the cash inflow is to be open more hours.
- Responses to increased demand
- Many more volunteers demanding staff attention has led to increasingly rigid staff schedules and a general need for more staff members.
- Many people wanting in to the Adoption Program led to the waiting list and management of the waiting list led to more staff duties.
- Many adopters wanting computers led to the Build Program which led to the hiring of collective members.
- Many people wanting in to the Build Program led to a complicated pre-build program which led to a need for more staff hours.
- Volunteers wanting to finish their commitments demand more volunteer shifts on the schedule. This is beginning to contribute to the idea of opening for more hours.
- Implementing new programs
- Computers for Kids resulted in a new staff position
- Collaborative Technologies resulted in a new staff position
- Sending computers overseas -- Recently we've been asked to work with a group starting Free Geek like programs in Africa. We would be paid to do this, but we would probably need additional staff to make it happen. We might produce computers that we're paid for, supply staff consultants to go to Africa and advise the startups, etc. Obviously even if this breaks even or makes us money, it would require an increase in staff.
- Teaching classes in computer usage and programming. People are constantly asking for classes that are outside of the scope of our core programs. Some of these can be cleverly connected to support our core programs, but are simply beyond the scope of what we have done. This also has been suggested as an income stream. As we try to do this type of thing, need for additional staff members -- either collective members or reimbursed, more autonomous teachers -- are needed.
Because of this, Free Geek has evolved through several stages in a reactive way. Each stage operated in its own way, but failed to work well at a certain point due to an increase in the size of the organization. Each new stage grew out this growth, often because we had no choice.
We'd rather think a little about the future and consciously decide how and how big Free Geek should grow.
So what are those stages we've evolved through?
There are many ways we could define these stages. From a staff perspective, we could identify several:
One (volunteer) staff person
We didn't know if we were a viable organization and were trying to see if we could could become somewhat viable before our seed money ran out. The ASS group and the education group formed. During this stage, the public "discovered" us and as a result the adoption program overfilled. We had to set up a waiting list in order to manage the volunteer schedule. As the waiting list grew longer, it became impossible to manage all the volunteers with just one (or even two) paid staff members, so we expanded.
- Adoption -- The adoption program was formed. There was no standard FreekBox, however and we learned that we needed to standardize this.
- Build -- There was no build program. The ASSes did it.
- Coding -- There was no coding program. The ASSes did it. The initial database was developed. The initial distro was begun.
- Education -- The education group developed the first adoption classes and manual
- Recycling -- Basically we chucked dead computers into boxes and sent them elsewhere.
- Sales -- There were no sales.
We had three members and few formal staff meetings. The staff decided things by word of mouth. There were a few people outside the collective being paid by outside agencies. The council was formed during this stage to coordinate between several working groups and deal with "big picture" and controversial issues. We received a financial setback when we didn't receive an expected grant. Thus we were forced to expand at about the same time we needed to raise more money.
- Adoption -- The waiting list for the adoption program was still growing.
- Build -- The build program was formed during this stage when it became clear that we couldn't rely on perpetual unorganized volunteer energy to build computers.
- Coding -- The initial distro was developed
- Education -- Running the adoption program and getting feedback were the main work of the Education group.
- Recycling -- We learned that by breaking down computers into component materials we could make more money, but recycling was a pretty inefficient and chaotic place.
- Sales -- Financial setbacks forced us to open a store, which at first was run by volunteers and staff members. It was only being watched when customers wanted to buy something.
Four to ten people that met on a weekly basis. We hired a Reception Coordinator.
- Adoption -- The adoption program waiting list was still growing more often than shrinking.
- Build -- Quality control was added to the build program which was run by a temporary contractor and then by two Build Co-coordinators. Production was improving.
- Coding -- Work on the second distro began and we began re-implementing the database in PHP. A first push at developing hardware testing software began.
- Education -- Besides adoption classes we experimented with classes in programming languages and found that they ran better if we tied them into specific volunteer work.
- Recycling -- Recycling was rather chaotic but slowly gaining efficiency.
- Sales -- We hired a Sales Coordinator to expand and add consistency to the store in specific and sales in general.
We had a dozen or so people. We were able to hire a Volunteer Coordinator. Staff meetings devolved into a laundry list of issues that got delegated to ad hoc committees. At the beginning of this phase those committees often didn't have the time to schedule a meeting. A designated person started putting these meetings onto the schedule. We began to have enough time to devote some energy to more peripheral activities like new Free Geek startups. Paid internships, the Hardware Grants group and Collaborative Technologies started during this stage.
- Adoption -- The adoption program waiting list was finally starting to shrink.
- Build -- The build program expanded to equal the adoption program in number of volunteer hours. A prebuild program was organized too.
- Coding -- We began regular coders workshops every Tuesday night and continued work on the database and testing scripts.
- Education --
- Recycling -- We hired a Recycling Coordinator to improve efficiency and increase income.
- Sales -- Sales began to flatten a bit.
Partially decentralized collective
There are 15 collective members and 2 paid interns. We still meet regularly as a whole staff, but also have several standing committees, reducing the need for the overhead involved with setting up an ad hoc committee. We're trying to spend any "spare" energy on making Free Geek more self-sufficient.
- Adoption -- The waiting list has been eliminated (finally).
- Build --
- Coding -- We have begun to offer Free Geek space as a place for coding groups to meet and are looking for ways to track and tap into a large external pool of talent. Weekly coders workshops continue to work (slowly) on the database -- FGdb -- and the hardware testing scripts FGdiag.
- Education -- We are beginning to cautiously experiment with offering training and conferences that are not directly tied to Free Geek work, in a hunt for new revenue streams that support our mission.
- Recycling --
- Sales -- We are organizing more
Where to next?
That's the million dollar question. To begin the process, we're starting by considering some thought experiments. For each thought experiment, we can ask several questions.
- What would that look like?
- What about that picture scares us or delights us?
- How do we change that future, avoiding the parts we don't like and finding our way to the parts we do?
Read about possible scenarios in the following links. (Feel free to add to the scenarios that are already started, add new scenarios to this list, or start working on the suggested but not yet started scenarios.)
- Crisis Driven Free Geek
- We operate in the future, much as we have in the past, responding to crises as they arise
- Expansionist Free Geek
- Seek out new territory. Send staff to the far reaches of the known universe. Create a bumbershoot organization to do federal grants and coordination work.
- Fragmented Free Geeks
- We decide to move the store offsite, maybe open a classroom elsewhere.
- Government Subsidized Free Geek
- Say the government passes a bill that makes consumers pay a recycle fee at the time of purchase and then the government pays us to do that recycling. How might this affect us? Do we become more or less economically viable?
- Lean Free Geek
- Philosophy involving the creation of a system that brings together the basic components to minimize cost and maximize throughput.
- Maximum Free Geek
- We decide to open all day long, seven days a week.
- Sister Free Geek
- We grow too big for our space / culture here, and decide to spin off a clone elsewhere in the Portland Area
- No Storage Free Geek
- No storage of items 'for a later time'. There is only 5 work day 'buffer' between departments. If something sits for more than 2 weeks, move it along.. either recycling or store. The goal: keep things moving. Minimize space needed for the Free Geek.
- Pallet Jack Free Geek
- All our sortage and workplaces can be moved by pallet jack
- Umm... We can't deal with computers anymore, so we move on to something else? Something like that.
- Experimental Free Geek
- The future of Free Geek as if we aren't sure what's going to happen.
- No clever name
- Starting to try to built a longish-term plan narrative that can we can all get behind.
- A way to expand
- Phased expansion into more than one site, with several points of opting out or departure.