Friday, April 15, 2011

Row, Row, Row Their Boat

I’ve had a business plan rolling around in my imagination for several years. It’s so ingenious, that I have been hesitant to share it with you in this space. I feared that one of my more ambitious readers would steal the idea, head to market before me, and make me the Tyler Winklevoss of the next decade. Now, I know that my idea has already been stolen, so I share the concept with you today – in memoriam.

The secret sauce of my plan is quite simple – ready? Unpaid interns who work for me for college credits and ‘experience’ instead of cash. I know, pretty awesome.

Here’s how I thought it would work. I line up a number of small businesses looking for outsourced human resources assistance on simple tasks, such as developing their employee handbook, handling pesky employee grievances, or providing custom policies and the internal communications for implementation of those policies. I would write the statement of work, and then farm the actual heavy lifting out to my unpaid interns. These interns would do all the real work, while my job would be to edit their final work product before delivery to the client. They’d do a great job, primarily because they would be trying to get noticed for a future opportunity after school is over.

The interns would work with their college advisors to have the work considered for credits. The interns would gain valuable real life experience in the field. I could charge my clients significantly less than my competitors. My overhead costs would be dramatically lower. As the business grew, I could expand into placing the interns into future HR positions, since they would already have experience and be fully trained in the discipline. Interns would seek me out because having my company’s name on their resume would improve their chances at landing an interview and ultimately the job of their dreams. Once they were placed, I would stay connected, and they could be tomorrow’s clients. And so it would go.

Everyone would be happy…except the IRS and the Department of Labor.

I know this now since it appears that Arianna Huffington has already stolen my idea and implemented it, to the tune of a $315 million cash out. She did exactly what I had planned to do. She aggregated the work of unpaid interns (bloggers from around the world), and then charged clients (advertisers on her site) for the privilege of reading the material. The unpaid interns (the bloggers) were happy, since they appreciated the name recognition and turnkey readership, the clients (advertisers) were happy because of the exposure, and most of all, the boss (Arianna) was happy because all she had to do was create the framework and bring in the clients. Unpaid staff did most the work (content).

Huffington will need to defend her business model in court now. According to Daniel Massey of Crain’s New York Business, “A class-action lawsuit filed April 12 in federal court in New York City alleges that as many as 9,000 unpaid bloggers for the Huffington Post were unjustly denied compensation despite contributing content that helped the liberal-leaning website’s price tag soar to $315 million.”

Massey writes:

Jonathan Tasini, a labor activist, writer and occasional political candidate is the named plaintiff in the lawsuit, which seeks at least $105 million in damages from, Huffington Post co-founders Arianna Huffington and Kenneth Lerer, and AOL. In February, AOL bought the Huffington Post for an estimated $315 million.

“Bloggers have essentially been turned into the modern-day slaves on Arianna Huffington’s plantation,” said Tasini, who wrote 216 entries on the site, beginning in December 2005. “Huffington Post is nothing without the bloggers who create the content.”

“Anybody blogging for Huffington Post is a scab, producing content for someone who is attacking workers,” he said.

Here’s an interesting case of a non-profit liberal attacking the for-profit liberal. Only in America.

My professional jealous at Arianna stealing my unpaid intern idea is tempered when I reflect on the fact that the idea of having unpaid workers provide content for profit is nothing new. Millions of people populate Facebook with valuable content, and the only member getting a check is Zuckerberg. Twitter is worth billions, and the owner of that site doesn’t need to tweet anyone to cash his checks. The public provides the content, and does so in exchange for fame and notoriety in 140 characters.

Today’s aspiring entrepreneurs only need to group people together who are already doing the work for free. Somewhere, Bernie Madoff is laughing his ass off in solitary confinement.

At Arianna’s new level of wealth, I believe that the GOP would group her into the class of “job-creators” that should not have her taxes raised; in fact, they say, her tax burden should be cut. If these are the kinds of jobs, unpaid ones, that the wealthy plan on creating for the new economy, count me out.

I am patiently waiting to be discovered for a paying gig, however; inquire within.

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