The nontrepreneur

NICK DOUGLAS — The serial entrepreneur is dead, and thank god, because he bored me. The new archetypal business creator is not that interested in business at all. Unlike Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page with their single grand vision, or the mercenary team who built Myspace for the money, founding a company is just one way the nontrepreneur fulfills a desire to improve the world. I'll show you how nontrepreneurs happen to start fantastic companies, how their approach to business is so special, and how they quit without any sense of loss. And I'll do it by using the rather unfair example of Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz.

Swartz was born in 1986. And then he sold a popular social news company for millions of dollars. But he's not an entrepreneur. Swartz helped build the RSS content syndication technology, ran for a seat on the board that oversees Wikipedia, and meanwhile learned a good deal about news, politics, Noam Chomsky, criticism of modern culture, and enough other knowledge to fill a Borders non-fiction section.

Swartz is an academic. He identifies as an activist, author, and "recovering programmer." To see how precocious he is, check his recent interview with blogger Philipp Lenssen. Swartz is white, male, and possibly below drinking age. But he interviews like a seasoned academic. Okay, so the kid's smart. Why does this make him the symbol of a meaningful entrepreneurial archetype? Like other nontrepreneurs, he exhibits these qualities:

Trust in others' information
"I try to read at least a book a week," Swartz told Lenssen. "And I collect longer articles to read on my phone while walking or on buses or things like that." Those little moments that people use to listen to a favorite song on iTunes, Swartz uses to suck up more information. He realizes the vast amount of knowledge that he could make his own, and he does make it his own, quoting thinkers, writers, and politicians and applying their ideas to his experience. Swartz is used to the idea that anything he could say, others have said better. This is a common principle of citation-heavy academic writing, but it's also why Swartz could have the nerve to trust an army of readers to pick the best articles for Reddit, rather than building a top-down system. Of course, it's also why Reddit maintained a higher standard of articles under him and his co-founders than competitors like Digg.

The nontrepreneur learns from the great thinkers and trusts the insights of others.

Distrust in others' information
At the same time, Swartz is a critical thinker who debunks faulty theory such as the idea behind The Secret. He also (if imperfectly) deconstructs the deconstruction of words like "freedom" and "activist."

Swartz is actually worried about a constant feed of information; in his 2006 essay "I hate the news," Swartz argued that an informed citizen has no obligation to keep abreast of minute-by-minute news:

Instead of watching hourly updates, why not read a daily paper? Instead of reading the back and forth of a daily, why not read a weekly review? Instead of a weekly review, why not read a monthly magazine? Instead of a monthly magazine, why not read an annual book?

(Author Tim Ferriss promotes a similar information diet in his book The 4-Hour Workweek.)

To open oneself to a plethora of mostly irrelevant updates is counterproductive. Not only does it allow the frequent input of misinformation, but it also gives one a doubly damaging false sense of knowledge.

Note, of course, the potential irony in Swartz building a news source that seems to encourage users to constantly check for news. Swartz is fully aware.

The nontrepreneur is critical of the common mode of thought.

A holistic approach to the future
By the age of 21, Swartz has heavily affected four significant online entities: RSS, Wikipedia, Reddit, and the Creative Commons alternative to copyright. This ability to make several real differences, though none earth-shattering in itself, comes from the aforementioned building of a vast personal bank of knowledge. It also requires a flow, helped by the distrust for constant distracting updates, which helps one to advance the same themes of thought with several projects, rather than letting each disparate project interfere with the others.

Swartz's life themes seem to be: quality information, public accessibility to that information, and realism in approaching life on every scale. His work with the above four projects follows these themes. He is thus fulfilled by both academic projects — he's not going to make much money from the non-profit Wikipedia and Creative Commons organizations — and businesses. That Reddit made some millions of dollars (one estimate is $10 million split among four founders and some investors) happens to fund his lifestyle, which is one characterized by a lack of spectacle.

Contrast with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, whose vision for some sense of connection between college students is secondary to his treatment of Facebook as a damn good business. This is a guy who either calculates a frat-boy image (with affectations like wearing flip-flops to speaking events and printing "I'm CEO, bitch" on his business cards) or, well, is a frat-boy, driven by strategy more than ideals. Nothing wrong with this, but it's a more typical and older model of company founder.

The nontrepreneur changes the world a dozen ways at a time; a business is just one.

There are doubtlessly more aspects to the nontrepreneur than these, and room for more exploration and correction of my poor extrapolation. Swartz seems to me to be the consummate nontrepreneur, but others could draw a fuller profile from the examples of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak or Blogger co-creator and Twitter founder Ev Williams. I do hope someone does.

Photo: Jake Appelbaum. Nick Douglas writes for Valleywag, Prezzish, and Look Shiny. But he'd love to turn this piece into a book.