First of a new series of “interviews” I’m doing for Edgeryders
(a rare smile from Pete Ashton, photo by Katchooo)
So how are people making a living on the edge? I wanted to find out so to begin I asked Birmingham, UK based Pete Ashton to tell me about his experiences.
Pete hasn’t had what many would consider a “real full-time” job since 2003 and since 2007 he has made a living based around his online activities.
He has a lack of formal education, describing himself as not academically proficient, and drifted into various jobs but when seeing his future as a retail manager he quit work and began exploring ways of doing something more fulfilling. A period of volunteering on an organic farm as part of the WWOOF (Working Weekends on Organic Farms) programme taught him how to live frugally and he began began doing temporary jobs to pay the rent while spending the rest of his time doing what Pete calls “stuff”.
This stuff was mainly doing fanzines, blogging and taking photos and through this he began to blog more about the city and participate in flickr groups, participating in days taking photos around Birmingham. The city blogging led to him meeting Stef Lewandowski and together they began the Created in Birmingham blog. The blog was about awareness boosting initially, but finally became about providing a grassroots style media outlet – with a subtext of DIY media. Pete ran it for a year, joint-winning the Guardian Media award for best blog in 2008.
The success of Created in Birmingham meant that Pete began to get paid 500 pounds a month, meaning he could stop doing temporary work and could do full time blogging. This then led to consultancy gigs in 2007 where he was paid to talk about blogging and run training workshops, something he still finds surprising. The main takeaway of the workshops was that social media relies on the personality of the people using it.
Since then he has been living off his own work, doing it or talking about it, and even has the choice of turning down work, enjoying it more than anything he has ever done for money before. “It would be difficult to return now to regular work”, he says.
I asked him where his ideas come from and what made some successful:
“if you don’t have enough ideas you’re doing something wrong, if you have to protect your ideas you’re doing something wrong. It is not the idea that is valuable but doing it”. He throws out ideas because if he can’t do something with it, wants to see someone do something with it and considers that shared ideas are more valuable and Intellectual Property is not valuable.
We talked about how the Social Media Surgery, recent winner of the Prime Minister’s Big Society Award, came about. Pete was getting lots of questions about social media so he decided to sit in a cafe and people could come and ask him there, like a doctor’s surgery. If people came along it was fine, and if they didn’t he would get on with work. Pete did the surgery for about 3 or 4 months and then Nick Booth took the idea and turned it into global movement. He is happy to take credit for the idea and beginning it, but gives Nick the credit for where Social Media Surgery is now. For Pete the Surgery idea came from a real need, blogging is a necessity for him, enabling him to work through ideas and problems, almost like therapy.
His personal situation helps in trying out ideas, he has no dependants and because of his system of 3 months money in the bank or 1 big job per month to cover costs, he doesn’t have to worry too much if ideas turn into work. Ideas establish him as someone interesting and worth working with, he does “crazy” ideas for fun but they lead to paid work like making websites or consultancy, which is not always particularly interesting but pays the bills.
Tools & books
As far as tools go he mainly uses the Internet, to connect with people, share ideas around and share other people’s ideas.
Pete considers his most valuable tool is his ability to write – he is self taught after failing in school and has handwriting issues, but computers saved him in that respect. He developed his writing through fanzines and writing for pleasure, developing a unique style. “Internet tools are trucks to deliver content, blogs are so easy to set up that having a blog is meaningless and having a blog with great content is the hard part, that’s hard and takes time so experience is important.
Being an early adopter = more practice, not better but you’ve had longer to figure out how to do it.”
I asked him why he is now experimenting with books:
Form is interesting, blogs are restrictive for what he wants to write, you can throw stuff at a blog & narrative evolves. Book publishing is going through an epic change similar to magazines & newspapers and he is interested in the effect of tablets/kindle’s – technology creating ways around the bottlenecks of the publishing world. Now people are selling large quantities of genre work very cheaply and he sees it as similar to the origin of the paperback in the 20th century. It’s no longer necessary to sell huge quantities to break even, micro-audiences mean it’s possible to have a relationship with your readers, which is the way Pete has made a living, having a relationship with an audience and then someone from audience employs him, for him any new development that allows that scale is interesting & books are reaching that now
He says that blogging was great in the beginning but it was just tech nerds, it became really interesting when ordinary people began to blog about their daily lives, an unmediated voice not able to happen before. It was not possible for someone like Pete to communicate globally before, but it is scaleable now to write books for 50 readers although the general mindset is still that it is not worthwhile unless it’s for huge numbers of readers.
Pete has the same self-employment category as consultant as when he was a cash in hand gardener in the past. He will investigate whatever the next buzz term is as it’s always interesting when something is given a phrase, name – he didn’t want to be known as blogging consultant as all bubbles burst, so best thing to be he thinks is to be Pete, the Pete brand, “This is Pete & this is what he does” which is hard but not important that everybody understands that, just that sufficient people understand it to make it sustainable.
We talked about the nature of On/Offline projects in relation to the Created in Birmingham shop. This was a pop-up shop in the Bull Ring shopping centre in Birmingham which “became ridiculously busy, got a lot of attention and made a lot of money for the artists”. In Pete’s opinion the nice thing about doing stuff online is if you fail, you can just switch it off, but when you do things offline you have “things”: infrastructure, furniture, shutting things down, payments, electricity bills, it stops being fun. People tend to think “it worked online so we can do it offline” but it’s quite a leap from chatting on twitter to going out and committing to something, there’s a lot of similarities and Pete says that he doesn’t believe that offline relationships are more important than online relationships, but they are different, different barriers to entry, different filters. There’s “lots of euphoria about meeting wonderful people on twitter, we can do it, but when you take that offline, to do something, you realise that takes hours in the day, it takes time, it takes commitment and everybody thinking along the same lines”.
We moved on to the effects of Internet legislation on his life and ability to make a living. Pete says that he’s very aware of legislation to “control” the Internet but also that a lot of the large cloud services such as youTube, tumblr fly in the face of the DIY publishing thing Pete is interested in.He thinks that at some point legislation will probably break the Internet and maybe the Internet will fix itself or maybe it won’t, maybe we are in a golden age which will never be repeated. But he’s reasonably confident that, “the genie is out of the bottle that even if the Internet is shut down or crippled, some new technology will help people communicate and share stuff because that’s the inherent need.”
Where’s Pete heading?
Dabbling in art, and doing a photography school which has been publicised just by word of mouth and is doing well. He’s guided by what he’s interested in and what people will pay for and feels lucky, “there is no right way, so I’m a guide – a lot of what I do is interpreting what people want and need.”
His network was built up by accident with people who can help to turn ideas into revenue generating things, it’s partly a personal marketing/branding thing and he’s not a big fan of that but aware of the importance of it. “It’s about taking control and responsibility for your activities and presence and not complaining that the system doesn’t let you do that – forget the system, I’ll make my own way. Thankfully I’ve been born in a situation and a country where I can do these things – and after 35 years flailing aimlessly like somebody who doesn’t really know where they fit and what they are doing, I’ve finally landed on my feet.”