VA's, Beauty and The Beast by Barry James

Around ten years ago a dream died for me. From it's very earliest days I believed that the Internet could release people all over the world from work drudgery to do the kind of things they loved and were good at. That the resulting massive surge of creativity and energy could benefit everyone everywhere - and change the way the world works forever. I even put my money, company and career at the time were my mouth was. That's a story for another time.

I studied Psychology when I was at Uni and I know that factories are not a natural environment for people. Neither is the office (originally modelled on factories) or school for that matter. Nor is the 'traditional' company. For most people work is like hobbling around in painfully tight ill fitting shoes - at best. You just get used to it because you have to. Farm and village life were more natural - from a human and psychological point of view - based around neighbours friends and the extended family.

Eventually I reluctantly concluded that my vision - that the Internet could release our individuality and creativity - was a pipe-dream. That the monopolists were winning and the web was going to be (mostly) about branding and manipulating the masses after all.

Now I'm beginning to wonder again. The dream seemed to go 'pop' with the bubble, then nothing. Until now.

Sometimes even 'safe' assumptions are completely wrong. Just about everyone seems to think that the economy has a settled structure based around corporate culture (and SMEs - smaller businesses - trying to grow and become like corporates). Also that to become a corporation is success - anything else is failure, in some degree. 

Really small, human scale, businesses have tended to be dismissed as 'lifestyle-businesses' or just 'micro-businesses'. This has tended to be perpetuated by governments - who find large corporate entities easier to deal with (you can ring up the Chairman).

Meanwhile the forces of globalisation (on everything from a global to a local scale) care nothing for such models. Their power is a brutal evolutionary one which thrives on creativity and efficiency.

Ultimately a hundred happy, creative, focussed, entrepreneurial people can achieve far far more than the same people herded into an office block every day, controlled from the top and made to toe-the-line, with all the misery that often results. Provided they have a way to network, collaborate and interwork. From this point of view the corporate culture (which took over the world only in the last couple hundred years we mostly seem to forget) works, but is strikingly inefficient.

But I've never seen a group of people (with one possible exception) really get this working in a new way. Using Internet tools as the glue to constantly connect, reconnect and combine everyone's efforts, skills and creativity in a constantly sifting landscape of projects to everyone's benefit. Until now.

(The one exception is the open source software community which has, so far, proved to be incredibly and unexpectedly powerful - but is more like an underground movement held in check by corporate forces - and probably self limiting - than the germ of a new model).

There has been a growing acknowledgement of the importance of SMEs and 'supply chains' for some time now - as a part of globalisation and the Internet. Some examples of this are bad. Many are expressions of corporate culture preying on smaller companies.

What I now seen developing and growing in the UK VA sphere is quite different. It's a vibrant community of skilful, inherently interdependent and cooperative (mostly single handed) entrepreneurs working together to great effect and with amazing efficiency. (This is not difficult to proove - just compare the costs of employing someone to getting the same job done this way and it speak for itself).

The range of skills are such that it seems to me that almost any function - back or front office - can be taken on in this community in a way that is many times more efficient than in the existing corporate / employee style. A kind of crowd-sourced business model. It's different to the 'open source' community because it is irrevocable intertwined with the 'old' economy - but is more efficient than it's host. 

It's no coincidence that this phenomenon has mushroomed in a recession - when evolutionary forces slam into gear and deliver their brutal verdicts. It's a clear indication that this is a pioneering culture - and the shape of things to come.

I thought my dream had died. I mourned it a very long time indeed. I begin to suspect that 'Beauty' was only 'Sleeping' after all. Those evolutionary forces are hardly Prince Charming - and a recession is a rather brutal kind of kiss. But maybe - just maybe...

(C) Copyright Barry E James BSc(Hons) 2010.


  1. I am always pleasantly surprised by the amount of support and collaboration that seems to exist within the VA 'industry' and has done for several years now. This is not only in the form of advice, collaboration or sub-contracting, but one VA stepping in to help another out in times of crisis as well. It's an inspiring sector to be a part of.

  2. There us an expanding group of people using the internet for collaboration not competition. I like the open market when networking because everyone is different and has different strengths and weaknesses.
    Kevin McCloud showed in Slumming It the power of working together as community which is exactly what the the internet and social media gives us.


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