Guiltvault: A brilliant business idea that I'm giving away

Every entrepreneur is familiar with the moment. The moment when you stumble across an annoying problem – a problem that you’d pay money to solve – and suddenly a synapse fires in your brain.

“Holy crap, if I’d pay money to solve this, so would other people. There’s a business here!”.

It’s the moment that has kick started a million businesses and generated billions of dollars over the decades. And on Sunday evening, not for the first time in what I laughingly call my career, I experienced it.

I’d filed my TechCrunch column earlier in the day and with little else planned, I decided to relax by watching some old episodes of Jonathan Creek: the BBC comedy drama about a magician’s assistant who solves seemingly impossible crimes. The show ran for four series in the UK between 1997 – 2004 and, I think, was also shown on BBC America. I’ve looked for the DVDs over here but I can’t find them, nor can I find a legal way to view them online. Like the petty criminal that I am, then, I headed to YouTube. Sure enough all four series were there, as was a recent one-off reunion special.

As I worked my way through the entire back catalogue, I remembered just how great a show Jonathan Creek is. David Renwick‘s scripts are brilliant – apparently each one took him several months to write, thanks to the intricacies of the puzzles each episode contains. The show is so good in fact, that I started to feel guilty: I know that Renwick isn’t going to receive a single penny of residual payment from my YouTube viewing. If only there was some way to contact him, tell him how much I enjoy the show, and offer to send him some money for the lost DVD sale. (Note: it’s not the BBC I care about losing money – they can afford it – but Renwick himself.)

And then I realised that I’m not alone in having this desire, or alone in wanting to pay money to solve it. In fact several times recently I’ve found myself on the other side of the equation. Back in December, I decided to give away the US ebook edition of my last book for free, online. My reason for doing so are outlined here – basically it wasn’t widely available in the US and I wanted people here to read it so they might buy my next one.

Since then I’ve had several dozen emails, tweets and other digital notes from people who have read the book for free, asking if there’s any way they can retroactively pay me some money to say thank you. No, really. Most asked for my Paypal details, or a way to send a check for the ebook cover price of $9.99. Others offered to buy me $9.99  worth of beer at events they knew I’d be attending; an offer which would have been much more enticing had I not given up drinking last October.

And that’s when I had the moment. I want to pay David Renwick for work of his that I’ve already enjoyed, but I can’t. People want to pay me for work of mine, but – except through some tortuous email exchange, which resulted in me turning down the dozens of offers of money because it seemed somehow weird – they can’t.

I thought of putting a note on my site suggesting that people donate to charity instead, but I couldn’t figure out the best way to implement that, or to thank/reward the people who did. Equally, there’s no way of me finding out what Renwick would like me to do to reward him – send him a check? Donate to charity? Buy something from his Amazon wishlist? Does he even have one?

Of course, I’m not the first person to realise that there’s a need for content creators to be rewarded for stuff that is consumed for free online. Peter Sunde, the founder of Pirate Bay, recently announced the launch of Flattr, his micropayment service that allows creators to be paid tiny amounts of money for their work.

Subscribers pay $5 a month, which is then divided up equally between all of the Flattr-enabled sites that the user wants to reward during that period. Setting aside the irony that the guy behind Pirate Bay is now claiming that creating content should be rewarded ( “People love things and they want to pay” he told the BBC, with a straight face), the fact remains that Flattr is a terrible idea.

Dividing your monthly subscription equally amongst all of the sites you enjoy means that the more you use the service, the less each site gets. And given that all of these services have a minimum pay-out (usually between $50-$100), it will be a long time before most creators will see any real reward. Also, the service puts all of the effort in the wrong place. I’m simply not going to sign up for $5 a month in the hope that the creators I enjoy will all use Flattr. There are a whole load of competitors: Sprinklepenny, Kachingle et al…I’d have to sign up to them all to cover all my bases.

For me, as someone who straddles both sides of the creator/audience fence, the idea of micropayments as a way to reward creators is a non-starter, mainly because it fundamentally misunderstands the psychology of why we want to reward creators.

Sure, part of the reason I want to pay David Renwick is guilt – a desire to do the right thing. But even that guilt has selfish motivations: if Renwick isn’t properly rewarded for creating something that gives me so much pleasure, I’m worried that he might be discouraged from continuing. I want to encourage him to carry on writing, so I can carry on enjoying.

Much more powerful is the fanboy motivation. Within all fans, there’s a subconscious desire for the artists they admire to be aware of that admiration. That’s why people send fan letters – not because they’re expecting a reply, although that’s a nice bonus – but rather for the fantasy that the artist will read it. We want a connection with our heroes. Allied to that desire to be noticed, is the desire for our peers to appreciate our generosity. There’s a reason why charity donation sites usually display the names of donors, and the amounts they’ve donated.  It’s an ego thing – if I see that my peers have donated an average of $10, I want to donate $20 to prove I’m more generous – and it drives the average donation upwards.

Giving 1c, or even $1, as part of a regular monthly split through services like Flattr does nothing to satisfy any of those desires. Splitting a regular monthly payment between dozens of creators doesn’t allow me to form a connection with any one of them. Such tiny amounts won’t encourage them to keep creating, nor will they allow me to show off my generosity to my peers. And of course, the chances of my favourite creator being registered with Flattr or any other single payment service is close to nil.

For all of those reasons, micropayment services are a non starter. An embarrassment, even.

Instead what someone needs to build is a macropayment service. A way to make a one-off payment to a specific creator to thank them for their entire body of work. If you insist on using a ‘micro’ word, then the correct one is ‘micropatronage’: an affordable version of the age-old practice of wealthy patrons supporting artists in substantive, public ways – ways that stroke the patron’s ego and/or guarantee their place in heaven.

Specifically, I’d love to see a service that allows me to reward David Renwick – or any other writer, journalist, artist, singer, filmmaker, or content creator – for his entire body of work. The value of the reward might be $5, or $10 or, if I’m wealthy, $100 or even $1000. The important thing is that I get to send the reward directly to the creator, and I get to show off that I’ve done so.

Here in specific terms are the four things the service should allow me to do…

  • Make a ‘payment’ in whatever form suits the creator: through a Paypal transaction, by buying something from their Amazon wishlist, by donating to their favourite charity – even by paying off their bar tab at their local pub. It’s up to them. The more creative the better, actually. I’d love the idea of rewarding a starving artist through Pizza Hut gift certificates, if that’s what they want.
  • Display the payment publicly. I want to Tweet that I’ve made the payment, or add it to Blippy – or whatever. But more importantly, I want my payment to appear on the artist’s website, along with my name. That way, I feel like my fan-dom is being acknowledged both by the artist and by other fans. What would be super cool would be if the artist figured out some other way to reach out to fans who support them: maybe people who donate over a certain amount get a DVD/signed book/print/whatever. But, again, that’s up to them.
  • Allow me to reward the artist directly. No bullshit 10% commissions like Flattr charges. I’m a fan of David Renwick, so it’s him who should get the money, not the dude who created Pirate Bay – he’s made more than enough hay from other people’s creativity.
  • Reward artists who aren’t signed up to the service. This is the big one. For a system to work, users have to be able to use it to reward anyone. That’s one of the things that made Paypal so successful. All you need to do to pay someone using Paypal is to enter their email address. If they don’t have a Paypal account, they receive an email inviting them to sign up to receive the money – which of course, due to the financial incentive – they do. This service should be the same. If the artist I want to reward isn’t registered on the service, I should be able to enter their email address and have the service contact them, asking them to choose how they’d like to be rewarded. When they’ve done that, I get an automated email with a payment link and am able to send the reward via whatever method they’ve chosen. Obviously once they’re signed up, future payments can be processed straight away. And if I don’t know the email address for a particular creator? No problem – I can enter their publisher, record label, newspaper or whoever else distributes their work and the site will figure out the correct contact email. Publishers forward mail to their authors all the time.

…and that’s it. As a ‘consumer’ (urk) of content, I want that service to exist so that I can start rewarding people using it. As a writer, I want that service to exist so that I can add myself to it and display a little logo on my site that links to my listing. That way, next time someone feels the urge to reward me, they can do so without having to ask first.

So what to do with this idea? If I were an entrepreneur, the answer to that would be simple. I’d figure out the specifics of how such a service might work, and then I’d build it. Or at least hire someone to build it. I’d set up a company either raise some seed money or boot-strap the thing myself. I’d do market research and figure out business models and all that stuff. I’d probably give it a name like Guiltvault or Micropatron (both gone). Maybe it would work, maybe it wouldn’t. That’s the fun of being an entrepreneur.

But I’m not an entrepreneur. Moreover, I’ve been one – several times – and I’ve sworn never to go back to that world. Also, there’s a part of me that thinks this idea could work best as a non-profit. Or even perhaps as a kind of open standard thing. Certainly with all the rewards going directly to the creators, no one else is going to get rich out of it – which might actually be the secret to getting publishers, agents and trade bodies on board with it.

So instead of drawing up an NDA and building a business, I’ve decided to do the opposite: to release the idea into the wild in the in the hope that someone – or some group of people – might want to run with it. For once, I’m actually encouraging the wisdom of TechCrunch commenters: I’m curious to know how you see the idea working, or why you see it failing. And if anyone with a history of making things actually happen feels like having a crack at building this, then you have my blessing. I’d be delighted to track your progress here on TechCrunch.

For my part, I’ve vowed to stay out of business – and it’s a vow I plan on sticking to. But if I can be of any help connecting people or throwing ideas into the ring, then give me a shout. Either way, I’ll be the first author to sign up to use it.

And, hell, if you make a billion dollars from the idea, at least you’ll know how to reward me for my contribution.