Companies, economists, scientists and digital start-up nerds, even whole societies can learn from misfits. Camel milk producers in the US, pirates in Africa, hackers in Europe and former gang organizers show us how to adapt, survive, innovate. This is what Alexa Clay, a rising star in the digital culture scene, claims in her book “The Misfit Economy”, co-written with Kyra Maya Phillips, published by Simon & Schuster. Christian Schwägerl has spoken with Alexa about her provocative approach.
Christian: Your book has some strange heroes as pioneers of a new kind of economy – not only pirates and hackers, but also American camel keepers. Why camel keepers?
Alexa: The guy we describe has built up an amazing business in the most unlikely place in the US. He is a typical misfit. From early on in his life he was frowned at because of his deep interest in exotic animals. But he has become one of the founders of a lucrative new business in the US, selling camel milk to the parents of autistic children because it is said to relieve symptoms of the condition. Exactly because he was a misfit, our protagonist was able to identify a whole new business opportunity.
Christian: Misfit has a connotation of weird or a bit negative. Why do you build a whole book on the term?
Alexa: For us, being misfit really is about capitalizing on what makes you unique or different. I think a lot of it is in rebellion to an economic system which is based so much on thinking about people in the aggregate or the mean and median. The misfit idea is a way to look beyond what’s called the rational consumer, the self-interested individual and the norm ideals of the so-called human capital. We look at people radically outside of this system or who have a rebel identity within our system. It is an umbrella word that brings together very different people with very different identities who share a certain outsider status. We explain why these people are as important to economic live and as drivers of innovation as are classical companies and product developers.
Christian: As important? Camel milkers on a par with Daimler?
Alexa: In some countries what is called the informal sector makes up sixty to seventy percent of total economic activity. It’s the economy of slums and precarious quarters, the economy of the black market and organized crime, of transactions that don’t get paid in regular ways. All of that is not really accounted for in official statistics.
Christian: Who were the first misfits you have personally encountered in your life?
Alexa: Probably my parents. My dad grew up on a farm in the US with six siblings and less than a dollar per day. When he made it to Harvard he was asked whether English was his first language by his anthropology professors. He didn’t quite fit in and felt like an alien there. My mother had a more bohemian background. She came from a Greek shipping family and as an anthropologist, she studied people who claimed to have been abducted by aliens. My mother treated these people with a lot of respect. This combination helped me to develop a lot of empathy with a wide range of people, to refrain from judging people too fast and to be able to listen deeply to what people are saying.
“Prison inmates (…) are very entrepreneurial and also very inventive, not only when it’s about trying to break out.”
Christian: So how did you start developing the misfit idea?
Alexa: After my degree in economic history I started earning money by helping to develop sustainability strategies for big companies. There I met these people who weren’t just waiting for their next pay-check but who tried to change their companies from within in terms of social and environmental responsibility or new types of business models. To see people bringing in a societal agenda into these big corporations was amazing for me. They knew how hostile their managements and colleagues were but kept trying because they also knew that given the size of their employers changes could have a profound global effect. One of them is working for the Ford Motor Company. He represents the third generation of his family to do so, and he injects a strong catholic and ecological value system into the company. He tries to develop strategies for Ford to invest in public transport and other more sustainable forms for mobility. People like him know perfectly well that this isn’t really appreciated and not rewarded in terms of the career ladder. But they not only keep going, they use this value misalignment as a productive and creative force.
Christian: But why do you describe these corporate misfits in one breath with pirates, gangsters and even terrorists?
Alexa: Because we want to show how radically new concepts and strategies come into being, independent from whether they are legal or not. Of course we don’t want to trivialize criminal behavior. But one can still learn a lot from it. Historic pirates, for example, were pioneers of democracy. They practiced real co-management on their vessels and with that approach they were more successful than ships with top-down command structures, a least for a while. For our book we also interviewed pirates from Somalia and found out how they turned local problems into a global business model. One of the leaders of the Latin Kings in the US taught us how one can turn a normal gang into a kind of social movement – a rather innovative achievement. Or take prison inmates. They have a lot of time at their hand to think hard and often they are very entrepreneurial and also very inventive, not only when it’s about trying to break out. We describe an initiative that tries to harvest this potential for starting companies after people get released from prison.
Photo by Nathalie Thery, use with permission from Alexa Clay
Christian: You praise certain qualities many misfits share. First in the list is hustling. What exactly do you mean by that in terms of business?
Alexa: That is a principle that emerged in a lot of the conversations we had. It’s often used in Rap lyrics and associated with the lifestyle of the gangster. It’s something that increasingly populates the language of start-up entrepreneurs. It means to be able to run seven projects in parallel because five will not work out. But you don’t know which. It means being able to talk with a homeless person in one moment and a top lawyer in the next. It can also mean to use a catastrophic setback as a source of new ideas. Troy Carter is a good example. He grew up on the streets of West Philadelphia, his father was in prison. He came from such a humble upbringing but went on to manage Lady Gaga and started the Atom Factory in L.A., a big talent management and media company.
Christian: Another misfit quality you describe is copying. Do you really believe that what copycat fraudsters do in China has a positive side?
Alexa: US companies focus on patent production and protection very stringently now. But stealing patents from Europe was actually an important part of America’s Industrial Revolution and a big boost for the US’s economic success. That’s a story they like to forget. Now emerging economies like China, India and Brazil do the same what the US did 150 years ago and claim it is part of their development needs. But suddenly it’s a crime. We really need to ask why there are so many patents that people file and then never commercialize. For me it is such a waste. Companies just sit on so many interesting things which the public could benefit from if their free use was allowed. Harvard University has so many patents that never get commercialized but that prevent others from commercializing them. In the pharmaceutical industry you have cases where a certain compound does not lead to a cure but they don’t let their competitor know that. The competitor will work on that compound for another ten years and will waste time and tons of money. That isn’t just ineffective, it really curbs the ability to find cures. There are many things that make me question the value of this whole system.
“I find it really gross how mindfulness and Buddhism get co-opted to make managers more efficient.”
Christian: Do you ask for a reform of the patent system or for abolishing it altogether?
Alexa: The whole system should be abandoned. We should develop better models. When you innovate you need a way for the innovation to spread. That’s what patents do. They allow it to package, distribute, commercialize and scale things. So we need that mechanism, but not its proprietary nature. We have creative commons and the emerging licensing standards that are good. But the value in anything is not the idea or invention itself but how you go about bringing it to the world. This is where the competition should be, not in locking things up. I’d love to see a website that is just a clearing house for new ideas. So many people have amazing ideas that they don’t have the time and energy to invest in and commercialize. We should assign less value to the idea itself and more value to the execution.
Christian: But isn’t there a danger that investments in innovation would stall?
Alexa: In England during the Industrial Revolution, R&D was mainly pre-competitive. Lots of firms would get together, share best practices and pool costs for R&D. And then they would find other ways to differentiate themselves, for example in their relationship with customers or the market or to the product itself. It would be a more sound way of going about business. You see quite a bit of this now happening again, pre-competitive arrangements in the pharmaceutical and the energy and even the food sector for instance. This is a good way forward.
Christian: The misfit protagonists in your book come across as rather cool and revolutionary. But is there a danger that misfits get sucked into capitalism like Buddhism and mindfulness meditation?
Alexa: I find it really gross how mindfulness and Buddhism get co-opted to make managers more efficient. A similar risk exists when human resources departments start to become aware of the huge potential of misfits. But even that would be good, as companies need more diversity, even radical diversity, people that are willing to push the edges of corporate discomfort. Part of the misfit revolution for me is to build bridges between these different cultures.
“The misfit economy is an invitation to bring the hacker spirit into this system in order to change it from the inside.”
Christian: So what kind of capitalism are you working towards?
Alexa: For me capitalism is just a kind of lazy concept that is tainted by cold-war history. In the work I do I try to highlight that there are many different cultures of capitalism that are possible not just the one we have inherited which is only about maximizing profits and shareholder interests. I am not against capital or the profit motive per se but want to question the spirit and motives of actors within the system. Capitalism needs some rewiring. The misfit economy is an invitation to do so, to bring the hacker spirit into this system in order to change it from the inside. Imagine what might happen if you connect grassroots innovators with misfits within centralized systems, like a cooperation between Greek initiatives and the European Central Bank? This could becomes a strong force of change. Image if we brought hackers working on the future of finance in conversation with banks to develop a people’s banking system. There are many possible alliances that can form and be part of a misfit revolution.
Christian: Isn’t that a bit far-fetched?
Alexa: There’s no guarantee that it will work, but we can try. Just before the book launch I took part in a three-week bus tour to small cities in the East of the US. There we have witnessed how misfits can revitalize local economies even under very difficult circumstances.
Christian: Your favorite example for a city that was able to revitalize itself?
Alexa: Loomington/Ohio where the logistics company DHL has cut 10.000 jobs. It was pure horror for the city, until two typical misfits came along and started changing things. Their story was just amazingly inspiring. They really had this do it yourself attitude, they took over their local chamber of commerce, they also rescripted what it meant to be from that place and made people proud not to go away to big cities.
Christian: And you went to these places as a kind of misfit adviser?
Alexa: No, we went mainly to listen. We wanted to move ideas and people between for example Mobile/Alabama and Pittsburgh/Omaha. The tour was about tuning in what’s happening locally and not getting distracted by standard economic narratives which make people feel passive. It was like a rock tour without the music, but with conversations instead. We started in Austin and went to 15 different cities, loaded up the bus with misfits from different industries in order to bring them in touch with local creatives, like people working on local DIY solar projects, the maker community, graffiti artists, people that are developing local cooperative banks, people who are changing their places. We now want to synthesize disruptive models that other people can use in other cities.
Photo by Nathalie Thery, use with permission from Alexa Clay
Christian: Would you describe yourself as a misfit?
Alexa: Working on the book has certainly made that side of me stronger. We try to live out the spirit of the book, so for example we’re hiring Nigerian spammers to help us develop promotional material and spam all our contacts. We made jokes about hijacking people with big Twitter followings and forcing them to tweet about the book. During my work on the book I also discovered a way to take on the role of another person and dress in a different way when I talk to people.
Christian: You refer to your Alter Ego, Rebecca, the Amish Futurist, as whom you attend technology conferences?
Alexa: For the book I had to set up my own website and started branding myself and part of me hated this idea to commodify myself. That inspired me to think about how I could hack my own personality. So I wanted to have another identity that I could play with that was softer. What I love about the Amish character is that I can speak from a moral point and I can speak very intuitively. That’s now becoming integrated into my normal identity. I found a great Amish Gunne Sax Prarie Dress in a shop in Berlin and then I ordered a bonnet through an Amish retailer online. I started going to start-up conferences in Berlin and elsewhere, bringing in a character who had no exposure to technology before to ask really Socratic questions about the purpose of why someone is developing a particular app or about the existential meaning behind an idea. That started conversations about how technology is changing our attention spans and our subjectivity, and it is bringing in a shyness to this whole digital world in which people rarely ask why we are so fascinated with the gadgetery and how that changes our social relationships and intimacy. When I’m in Amish clothes I’m Rebecca and even my friends address me that way. But the Amish character is spilling over into my other personality.
Christian: As Rebecca, you speak about the “power of the Analogue”. Is that something you have discovered in your role?
Alexa: Analogue is a shorthand for a time before we were dominated by digital technologies, it’s about getting in touch with more human and artisanal instincts, about the power of collaborating offline, where technology doesn’t have to be digital, but could be a social technology.
Alexa Clay and Kyra Maya Phillips, The Misfit Economy: Lessons in Creativity from Pirates, Hackers, Gangsters and Other Informal Entrepreneurs, Simon & Schuster, 2015
Christian Schwägerl is a Berlin-based journalist, author and biologist. He regularly writes for GEO magazine, Frankfurter Allgemeine Newspaper, Yale E360, DIE ZEIT science magazine and other media outlets. Christian has written three books “The Anthropocene“, “11 Looming Wars” and “The Analogue Revolution“. He is head of the Robert Bosch foundation’s Masterclass on the “Future of Science Journalism.”