March 8, 2008

How to Run Your Startup Digital Humanities Shop

Jason Calacanis got some heat yesterday for his list of 17 tips for running a startup. Some of his suggestions are typically over the top, but I have to admit that the vast majority seem right on to me, not just for startups but for digital humanities shops like CHNM. Buying Macs and second monitors, eliminating phones except for administrators, allowing people to work flexible hours, and even hiring workaholics (i.e. “people who love the work”)—they all hit very close to home. We could do better on some of Calacanis’s recommendations, but many, if not most of them have become standard practice at CHNM.


  1. Uh, oh. I think I’ve opened Pandora’s box.

    But in all seriousness, I think Calacanis’s redefinition of the term “workaholic” in his second edit of the original post to mean “someone who loves the work” is just right. The problem and the cause of so much of the debate (including that on the 37signals blog) is that “workaholic” is a such a value laden term. There’s no doubt, however, that having employees who believe passionately in the mission of the organization and are willing to throw all of their energy, creativity, personality, and camaraderie into furthering its goals are essential to a dynamic digital humanities center. Fortunately, we have many of those kinds of people working at CHNM.

  2. I would add to Jason’s list:

    Encourage and facilitate the use of public space and mobility in the office. Provide laptops, reliable wireless connectivity, and comfortable and centralized public spaces and employees will do the rest: spontaneous creative collaboration, informal “pickup” meetings, fostering interpersonal relationships, etc.

    This is what I think the Center does well.

  3. The two points that really resonated with me from the 37Signals post were:

    2. People who are workaholics are likely to attempt to fix problems by throwing sheer hours at the problem. If you’re dealing with people working with anything creatively that’s a deadbeat way to get great work done.

    4. If all you do is work, your value judgements are unlikely to be sound. Making good calls on “is it worth it?” is absolutely critical to great work. Missing out on life in general to put more hours in at the office screams “misguided values”.

    Anybody who’s worked in a tech startup for more than a few years realizes that what gets built is far more important than how much heroic sacrifice it takes to build that thing. Asking up front “hey, why are we building foo from scratch rather than using the open-source foo library can turn months of heroic work on really cool code into weeks of deliberate, pace work on really useful code.

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