I can’t really do any justice to Jenny Odell’s great piece in the New York Times about a bizarre network of ventures, so if you (like me) didn’t see it when it came out, please go read.

While most of it seems to be in the service of some fairly shady financial dealing, there a lot of ideas that have been espoused for new economy micro-entrepreneurs, played out by people with high motivation and a reasonable level of capital:

  1. Buy then build. Some of the deepest weirdness in the story are the physical bookstores that are also part of the online empire, but at one level this isn’t a whole lot different than Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods, or that different from the advice to buy a stable small business and add some online juice to get better returns.

  2. Search cost arbitrage. Drop shipping and rebadging definitely range from the mildly shady to the fairly clearly valuable - certainly not everyone wants to be on AliExpress themselves.

  3. Ad-supported content. Part generated and scraped in this case, but even that has shades of acceptability with generated news on the rise nearly everywhere.

  4. Synergies, for lack of a better world. A lot of these businesses were complementary, and if run fairly and honestly could benefit each other.

It also seems clear that a relatively small number of people are behind this whole web of stores (and that’s excluding the whole Newsweek situation, and the university itself), which is in some way a quite strong vote for the power of this suite of technology. What I found even more fascinating was one of the comments, that alleges the entire thing was running someone else’s playbook. Whether or not you could actually have got good returns is anyone’s guess, but it does feel at least plausible that there is a light-side version of this kind of business.