[ 15:00 sunday 24 november – track 19, union station, washington dc ]
a textbook autumn afternoon here in the, er, capital of the free world. the beech and maple glow red and gold in the slanting sunlight, their branches splattering a subversive tracery of shadows over washington’s unamused classical facades. any moment the doors of my train will hiss closed and we will begin our journey up the coast to new york. by the peculiar logic of the american market it would have been cheaper to make this journey by air, but having flown every other leg of this tour i really wanted to do this one over land and achieve a more tangible sensation of traveling.
it’s only three weeks since i was hammering away on the keys of fofo’s computer in milan, completing all the documents for trampoline. it seems like another age.
[ 21:35 saturday 30 november – christopher street, greenwich village, new york ]
an espresso bar populated by persons of an alternative chic demeanour. the cranberry orange muffins are good.
when i embarked on this journey i expected i would be tracing every step through this email journal, sharing my experiences and feelings as they happened. it was not to be. mainly i’ve just been wildly focused on trampoline. since arriving in america i’ve met with a succession of people in four cities (san francisco, seattle, washington, new york) to talk about the project. each person made a different input to what we are trying to do. some were commercial investors, some were social investors, some had started up technology businesses, some were running non-profit organisations, some were consultants or analysts. it’s been intense.
the main objective was to learn, and learn i have. it’ll take some time to digest everything. the input from all these different sources has been pretty consistent. on one hand, the response to the central idea has been “yes, this is really interesting, there’s great potential here and there’s nothing quite like it in the market”. on the other hand, i’ve been ripped to shreds on my lack of convincing answers about how we are going to get customers to buy the product and how we prevent larger firms stealing our ideas once we are in the market.
americans are not known for pulling their punches, and the directness with which my thinking has been challenged left me slightly shell-shocked by the end of the first week. but piece by piece i absorbed what i was hearing and began to see solutions. by the time i got to washington i found i was able to respond with gusto to questions which had left me floundering in san francisco. after three years submerged in trampoline with a product-focused outlook, i’ve started a transition to seeing it from a market-focused perspective. the question “how can we make this technology work” has to take second place in my mind to “how can we make this venture work”.
bearing in mind my main objectives are to do with social change, this seems like a bizarre point at which to arrive. but the logic is inescapable. realising the technology is going to take a lot of labour. mobilising that labour will require a good deal of capital. this capital is most likely to come from commercial investors. and these investors will only put resources into the venture if it is capable of generating a strong financial return.
a month ago i think my perspective was: we have to develop this technology at all costs, i’ll take resources from any source i can find and i’ll say whatever i need to say to get those resources. i didn’t really have any interest in what investors would get out of it. i just wanted to develop the system. two years ago i could probably have raised the necessary capital on this shaky basis and built the system. but the lack of commercial rigour would have revealed itself as the market grew tougher and the business would almost certainly have unravelled.
from this i draw two conclusions. first, in order to achieve my social objectives i have to think like a capitalist. second, the venture will benefit from the fact that it is starting out at a time when the capital market is extremely tight.
[ 08:30 monday 2 december – terminal 7, kennedy airport, new york ]
right about now a united airlines boeing 777 is rising from the tarmac. i expected to be on it. however it seems the sky is full of new yorkers returning to london after their thanksgiving turkeyfest. when i arrived to check in there weren’t any seats left. having got up at quarter past five this was a little tiresome. united offered me in a seat in business class on the 7pm departure and $400 of ticket vouchers. since i have no meetings arranged for this evening that seemed like an arrangement i could live with so i didn’t make too much fuss. of course the utility of those vouchers will depend on how long united manages to stave off bankruptcy.
so this gives me ten hours to kill. i’ve located some nice mies van der roehe chairs in a secluded part of the british airways check-in area where i aim on catching up with some sleep. last night i went to hear my friends read poetry in a williamsburg cafe and then accompanied them to a luridly festive bar where my intentions for an early night grew hazy after several whiskeys.
[ 05:55 tuesday 3 december – united airlines flight 958, western approaches ]
looking down at clusters of gloomy orange lights far below. this is britain. in contrast to my window-seat views of recent weeks these lights don’t fall into rectilinear grids. the first contrast of many i shall doubtless observe.
this has been an extraordinary tour. i am left with much to digest and to recount.
the instruction comes to turn off electronic equipment. we’ll be landing in half an hour.
: caro * * *