The Passion Economy: Sound advice for start-ups on how the passion economy works

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Published: June 28, 2020 7:00 AM

Sound advice for start-ups from an established author on how the passion economy works.

Young businessman giving presentation to colleagues in creative office.

In 1850, the best any thinker could contemplate about the nature of work and society was a person’s enslavement to her needs and the machine. Karl Marx developed a theory of capital on the context how the capitalist used machines to subdue the labour. The situation was no different when John Keynes took a similar view of the nature of work and the rise of machines to replace labour. The jobs of today, he said, would be a lot different from the jobs of tomorrow. While both were right in that context, none could ever fathom that passion and work could ever be the same. The idea still seems absurd to many.

It was a thing of arts and literature and only a few talented could follow their passions as a profession. This was true of both the 1800s and the early 1900s. But Joseph Schumpeter provided some romanticism to the idea of being an entrepreneur, with an indomitable spirit to succeed. He called entrepreneurs undertaking the task of creative destruction as passionate people. Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were a select few who would fall in the category—driven by their passion to create new worlds.

The passion economy that follows in Adam Davidson’s work is no different. Just that more passionate people are finding work and following what they wish to do. The Passion Economy is not about philosophy or about nature of work, but what works in making businesses work. The author, a journalist, and co-founder of NPR’s Planet Money programme, details the life and history of a few successful start-ups. But these people are not geniuses, who dropped out of Harvard or had their family’s money; these people belong to working class households. There are no rags-to-riches tales either.

What Davidson does is carefully analyse each of these enterprises and the role of passion in the capitalist world. Divided into 12 chapters and four case studies, it relies heavily on the research of Scott Stern. Then there are the general rules of how businesses should operate. Pricing should be as per certain norms, create value that cannot be copied, never be in the commodity business even if you are selling a commodity. Passion should be a story. Then there is advice for employees and the famous theory of nudge.

Sadly, there is nothing new that The Passion Economy offers. It has the same advice that every entrepreneur or podcast will offer. It is just that Davidson has rebranded it as the social economy. Plus, Davidson doesn’t offer much in terms of case studies also. The research is, indeed, well done, and Davidson does present important insights. But that is a limited domain. The ideas are more repackaged than anything else.

Passion goes missing from the book and why that passion exists and how it develops are nowhere to be found. What Davidson also misses is the fact that commodification has been the truth for the capitalist world, whether it was then or now. Consumerism is something that a company can rarely avoid. And, all entrepreneurs are passionate about making money. The only thing that has changed over the years is that passion has become a commodity itself. And, as passion is a story, you are doing nothing but selling passion to get funding, whether that is for yourself or for a social cause. The book ends up not deliberating on passion, but how passion has worked in certain situations. There is no talk of failures. For every passionate start-up that works there are many that fail. If only passion was enough. Not every passionate worker can get remuneration in the market. Capitalist forces decide on market dynamics. In a recession, passion may not even get you a job, but in a boom even the non-passionate may get rewarded.

The book is for anyone who wants to learn about start-ups and wants advice not from their uncle but an established author. Davidson does give a glimpse of his idea of a passion economy; only that it gets missed in the humdrum.

Book details

The Passion Economy
Adam Davidson
Hachette
Rs599, Pp 336

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