Marco Polo Project – Follow the creative impulse

In 2010, I founded an organisation called Marco Polo Project. After COVID put a spanner in our wheels, we put most of our activities on ice. We’re now re-inventing what the future might look like. As part of this work, I wrote a series of posts exploring the original drivers behind Marco Polo Project. This is also an opportunity to reflect on success and failure – celebrate what was, mourn, and explore what could be.

Marco Polo Project was born in Tianjin, on a beautiful night of insomnia, in December 2010.

Earlier that year, I passed the second level of the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, and received a scholarship to spend three weeks in Tianjin. It was my first time attending formal education in Chinese. On day one, I learned that Chinese people like dragons and the colour red.

Back then, I was working for the Victorian State, exploring e-government. Wikis, open data, gamified tools for bug reporting were the next stage in citizen engagement and service delivery. My partner had a blog, documenting daily projects, with fans in the US and invitations to Writers’ Festivals. I was excited by the possibilities offered by the Internet to share stories, ideas and practices around the world – create some sort of new cosmopolitan identity, and collaborative abundance. Those were the glory days of the sharing economy, when Facebook was about friends, Google about knowledge, and a different type of world seemed possible. I was also fascinated by the discourses of a burgeoning ‘online China’ that my language skills were still too limited to let me access. What was happening there? I wanted to know, but my classroom experience gave me no clue.

That night, in the hotel attached to Tianjin Normal University, right next to the Balitai roundabout, I had a vision. What if we could gather a curated selection of texts from Chinese writers, cultural analysts and intellectuals publishing online, and offer them to the people learning Chinese around the world for collaborative translation. I imagined a thorough division of labour. Advanced learners and Chinese natives would scour the Chinese Internet for texts to share. They would propose a first version of the translation, discussing options in a comment section. Less advanced learners could read the translated texts, in bilingual format or English only, as a way to better understand China. There would be mutual support, a point system, and badges for various accomplishments, forming a grand online community. I went to the bathroom to keep my roommate asleep, took extensive notes, and got back to bed a few hours later, shaking with excitement.

Daniel Ednie-Lockett was the first believer. We met in 2009 through a Chinese language MeetUp. He ran a small company that took international students on local tours as a way to promote cultural integration, and would soon evolve into a language exchange network. It’s late December 2010, and we’re sitting at a café on Little Lonsdale Street. I share the vision with him. He jots down a few notes on a napkin. ‘I don’t know if it’s going to work,’ he said, ‘but it’s cheap enough to try’. With a thousand dollars or so, we could build a prototype. I was willing to lose that money. Dan introduced me to people who could help, I put an ad online, and gathered a first team. Three months later, we had a functional website running live, with a small selection of texts.

Human-centered design teaches you to look for a need – a problem to solve – through a systematic process, then go on to prototype a solution. There is certainly wisdom to that approach. Yet sometimes, the desire to create something comes first. This was the case for me, with Marco Polo Project. My creative impulse had a force of its own. I would not stop until I brought it to life. I believe this kind of creative imagination plays a bigger role than we acknowledge in entrepreneurship, as it does in creative ventures.

Yet the force of imagination comes with a downside. The vision may be clear, but it floats, disconnected from the world. Perspective only comes retrospectively. So, when things don’t work out, and compromises must be made, it is unclear where to hold on, and where to let go. Particularly, reaching a joint agreement on where to pivot is critically difficult.

By 2017, our website had fallen into disarray. With no business model or investment, the code was developed on the cheap. It was breaking apart. China blocked its online blogs and magazines one by one. Hardly anyone contributed to our translations any more. So, we decided to shift offline entirely, archive the magazine, and redirect our address to a new website focused on our workshop design activities. It made sense at the time, and has taken us where we are. Yet a bitterness remains. Something of that original creative impulse remains un-satisfied, and I often wonder if we should have simply kept on course.

I wish, in the early years, I had met someone who listened to me closely, took the time to sit down and ask ‘what exactly do you want’, work with me on the vision, and help me make the right decision. Either I met no such person, or I wasn’t able to recognize them. There was a lot of rush, narrow-mindedness, self-evidence and complex egos. I guess the texts in this series are a retrospective attempt at making sense, then – and figure out what I had attempted to do, in the hope that it will be useful for the future.

Reflecting on my practice – innovation calls for gentleness

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

The placenta is a unique adaptive organ among mammals. Its role is to keep peace between the mother’s immune system and the foetus by dampening the mother’s immune response.

This description of the placenta, which I read in David Quanmen’s The tangled tree, made me reflect on this aspect of innovation. That every new idea begins its life as non-self, in the mind of its originator, and in any circle where it spreads.

For innovation to take, therefore, you must reduce immune response from the ego. You must temper the knee-jerk reaction that says ‘this is not for me and I will get rid of it’. You must create conditions calm enough, peaceful enough, that an idea can enter and modify you. 

Innovation requires blurring the barriers of the self. With this comes a sense of vulnerability. Any threat of aggression, therefore, or whatever prompts a lifting of the shield, will reduce the likelihood of new ideas emerging.

As a facilitator, my primary goal is calm. I reduce energy, because innovation threatens the self, and therefore demands gentleness. The same applies to my editorial work. Soften the message, reduce the sense of threat, keep egos asleep.

Reflecting on my practice – what to ask a start-up founder

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

Start-ups typically fail. That’s entrepreneurship 101. Yet founders are typically deluded about the chances of their start-up failing. Worse, success may well depend in part on their delusion, their capacity to convince others, and to keep going against the odds.

When a founder presents their project, particularly when they want something from you, they will probably tread a fine line between honesty, and distortion of reality. Never believe that ‘90% done’ means what it sounds like – it’s often a polite expression for ‘we’ve kind of spoken about it once’.

I’m trusting by nature, and by choice. Working around innovation circles, I often hung out with founders – and learned some wisdom through naivety. From first and second-hand experience, I identified four areas where early stage start-ups are likely to fail, and founders to present a distorted image. I’m sharing those few notes here, in hope that they will be useful for others intending to join an emerging project.

Funding. Building a new venture requires competent people devoting long periods of concentrated time to a project. Those people will probably want some income to pay their bills – not to mention, pay for co-working space, materials, or other business expenses. Start-ups are typically money-poor, yet founders usually confident that the money will come. So, make sure you check how dependent progress is on funding, how much is in the bank right now, and how advanced discussions are with potential backers.   

Technology. Founders often have a distorted relationship to time. Present and future are not clearly distinct. Ideas are presented as complete plans; blueprints as tested prototypes. This confidence extends beyond the realm of the venture. Experimental prototypes from other companies are often identified and presented as available technology. So, whenever someone tells you they’re building a complex AI system, or whatever new piece of hardware or software – check the details of where exactly they’re at, especially if you’re not a tech person. Is there a prototype? Has it been tested? In what setting exactly? And what are the results?

Team. Start-ups attract exceptional talent, high achievers and award winners. You see those names and titles on pitch decks and investment documents. If they believe in the project, then surely, so should I? Except those names on file are likely not full-time workers, or even working at all. ‘Advisory board member’ might mean ‘pops a message once every six months‘. And all credentials are, most likely, inflated – or at least presented from the best angle. So, use the same wisdom you would on a dating app. Are those people actually in? Do they have other commitments? How accurate are their profiles? 

Culture. Start-up life promises a certain form of freedom and excitement. There is often much talk about culture, working to your strengths, and supporting a great team to do their best. This, however, is likely to clash with the founders’ narcissism, quirks, or simple human limitations. So, check in very carefully before committing. How exactly will you be valued? Will you be listened to? Will your needs actually be met? Importantly – try raising the question of power. When push comes to shove, who makes final decisions, and if there is conflict, how will it be solved?

If the founder refuses to give you details on any of those matters – take it as a warning. Yet, remember – they’re more invested than you are, and their delusion is a condition of success, so don’t be too harsh. Risky as it may be – betting on founders may still be the best option we have. Hey – did I mention I’ve been a founder myself?

Writing as entrepreneurship

A first book has two potential sources: boldness or boredom.

From an economic perspective at least, writing is bold. It is about putting a lot of effort into a venture that is most likely to fail. Writing a book is risk taking, driven by a vision, in the hope of an uncertain, but disproportionate reward.

Writing, in short, is best compared with entrepreneurship (hence my irritation with ‘pay the writer’ discourses, which I believe used an incorrect category) .

An alternative, of course, if that people write because they have nothing better to do, the cost is low, and they might as well try. And maybe, that is also true for entrepreneurs.

Career paths

I never believed in career; now my belief is put to the test.

Until the end of June, I had a great part-time job with the Victorian government. I worked in evaluation and strategy, a stimulating role, and a chance to learn about governance and management. Working for the government aligned with my commitment to the common good. And the conditions of the job – three days a week, with flexible working hours, and a very short commute home – gave me the necessary free time to set up Marco Polo Project in the first place.

This job has now ended. The government decided to cut down 10% of their staff. I was on a fixed-term contract – usual status for recent arrivals. And although I was part of a winning team for last year’s innovation challenge, got in an Asia-leadership program, and can speak Chinese, my contract was not renewed. It seems either the Baillieu government does not actually consider Asian engagement a priority, or there’s a flaw somewhere in their HR system.

In the short term, this leaves me with a problem to solve. I need income. I can’t work full-time and run the Marco Polo Project. And I don’t have much time to filter and apply for jobs.

I therefore started wondering, is there any support group, or official policy, for people like me, to help them find suitable jobs? Melbourne is a creative, innovative city. This is because it has large numbers of artists and social entrepreneurs – many of which work part-time at various jobs. Our activities, although they do not have a direct dollar value, contribute to the general well-being, are a serious argument for tourism, and contribute to talented executives, academics and professionals choosing to settle in Melbourne. We’re contributing significantly to the community, we’ve got skills and we’re happy to work. But we don’t have time to look, and we need flexibility. Would any firm develop an ‘easy job’ sponsorship – where instead of giving a novelist a grant, you give them a front-desk reception job, and access to the building’s rooms after hours? Or is there any business out there who would like to support dialogue and understanding with China, and help the goal by giving me some part-time position?