Exosphere: Renovating Innovation, Renewing Startup Culture
Exosphere is an innovation hub with a difference. Skinner Layne, Founder and Chairman of the Chile-based “learning and problem-solving community”, explains the philosophy that guides Exosphere, provides some excellent advice on navigating the startup scene, and most importantly, gives us insights on honouring the will to create change for the better that is at the heart of startup culture and entrepreneurship.
On the Inspiration Behind Exosphere:
Exosphere’s inception stemmed from a confluence of experiences in my own life and in what I have been witnessing in people around me for many years, namely that traditional institutions (like the church, state, university, school) are failing us immensely, and most of the solutions that have been proposed have been piecemeal and technical in nature. I think the reasons for this are two-fold.
- The Pitfalls of Techno-Utopianism
First, there is a current trend of techno-utopianism that dominates the Silicon Valley circles which seems to lead people to believe wholeheartedly that a little software here, a little gadget there, can supposedly solve all of the world’s major problems. Somehow it is the human factor that is blamed for causing the world’s problems, and the belief is that technology (alone) can make up for it.
- The Complexities of Human Nature
The second part is more basic, which is that dealing with people is neither easy nor straight-forward. Code either works or doesn’t, based on predictable patterns, and when it breaks down, there are purely technical reasons for it that simply require a bit of tinkering. Human systems are by contrast complex, and not in the “gee this is pretty tricky to figure out” sort of way, but rather in the way that the nature of the universe is complex. And unlike software programs or gadgets, people have a will of their own and are usually pretty averse to being “programmed.”
This is why most people who have a vision for an improved world usually focus their efforts in more bounded domains such as computer code, mechanical engineering, or social reform through legislation (also a form of code). But there are complex problems that these bounded domains cannot address because they themselves are finite in the scope of what they can do. Hence, we will never outgrow or out-evolve a need for human institutions.
Exosphere’s mission is to be one such human institution. We have a vision of the human person that is distinctly counter-cultural in our day and age, which is that life should be integrated, that there should be no distinction between work and play, that happiness (or contentment or satisfaction, whichever word you prefer) must be derived intrinsically and manifested into pro-action extrinsically. Our only ideology is that life is a series of problems that need to be solved and that meaning comes from the continued effort to solve those problems, and in the relationships that are forged in the process.
Consequently, Exosphere is an attempt to help people respond to the two most significant sources of existential suffering in life: spending our time out of alignment with our calling and broken relationships with other people. Entrepreneurship offers the best hope for ending the former and building community for the latter.
On the Specifics of Managing Exosphere:
Our workflow is centred around identifying current and potential problems and then attempting to solve them. We take a via negativa approach to everything we do: look for what is working least well, improve it, repeat. Some days I spend my time identifying problems, other days responding to the problems that other people have identified. We have a fluid organizational structure that is in constant flux, changing constantly to fit the needs of the job to be done. We strive to ensure that the work-requirements of generating enough revenue to keep the doors open never gets in the way of spending time with the people who are in front of us. It’s not always easy, and we don’t always succeed, but our goal is always to help the people who have entrusted us with their time and resources.
On Experiencing the Ups and Downs of Startup Culture:
I have seen almost everything in my nearly 10 years as an entrepreneur. Most of it I’d rather not see again. It may be that we are at the peak of a venture capital bubble, and so my impression of startup culture is distorted by what I see right now in front of me, but what worries me is seeing such a large number of people trying to play an insiders’ game, and so the startup world seems unusually full of sycophants at the moment.
Venture capital and acquisition politics — the stuff of startup tabloids like TechCrunch — too often take the place of real problem-solving and therefore real entrepreneurship.
The entrepreneur is a person who brings something new into the world in spite of resource constraints. The startup hipsters running around parading themselves as entrepreneurs are just playing a peculiar game of rent-seeking by trying to fool investors into giving them money to keep going a little longer. I would say the only people they are fooling are themselves, but it’s clear they are fooling a lot of other people too.
On Intellectual Property Rights Within the Startup Framework:
IP is just one of many factors that a new enterprise must consider. Many people have differing views on the subject, and we do our best to include IP-education as part of our process at Exosphere so that people can make their own educated value judgments about it. For instance, the ownership of IP in successful startup projects depends entirely on the decisions and views of the founders.
On Government-Related Initiatives on the Chilean Startup Scene:
I don’t consider Chile to be extremely active in innovation, but rather only in talking about it. They are really good at that. I’ve been impressed by the marketing capabilities of the Chilean government in and through StartUp Chile. It has done wonders for our ability to convince people to come to Chile, and for that I’m grateful. But our goal is to develop real entrepreneurs and help them create businesses, not play the global vanity game, so what we do doesn’t really compete with what they do.
On Navigating Systemic Setbacks for Startups:
It’s hard to say about Chile. It is a country with tremendous potential and a natural environment that would be the envy of anybody who had lived amongst its beauty. But I’m sadly skeptical about whether the culture will allow true development in the next five years. It is a country plagued by a sophomoric socialist populism on one side and a plutocratic crony capitalist racket on the other — which doesn’t leave much room for innovation or creative thinking. I’ve been here for 6 ½ years and am starting to lose hope that it will ever get any better.
On Exosphere in 10 Years:
In 10 years, I see Exosphere in a lot more places reaching a lot more people. It’s hard to daydream about particulars as we are pretty focused on the work required to make it a reality.
On What’s Most Rewarding About Exosphere:
The people. Over and over again, the people. Seeing people reach deep within to find their purpose and then bring that to bear in doing the work of the day to change not only their own lives, but the lives of other people is something so rewarding and delightful that I almost feel guilty for it.
On Starting Up for Would-Be Entrepreneurs:
Get started. Not on just anything. Get started on something that you really, deeply care about. Something that keeps you awake at night and gets you out of bed the next morning. Something you can’t stop thinking about even when you are doing things that you used to think brought you the most joy in life. That’s your calling. That’s where life has meaning. That’s what will give you the strength to persist through all of the difficulty you will encounter along the way.
On Innovation Hubs Helping Entrepreneurs With the Commercialization Process:
Focus on the people. Nurture people. Help them. Support them as human beings and then they will be able to innovate and build better businesses.
About: Mekhala Chaubal
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