Aug 25, 2018
Short summary: Moscow rationalist community is organized around a local venue called Kocherga. Kocherga hosts 40–50 rationality-adjacent events per month, teaches a few dozen people per year in CFAR-style applied rationality workshops, and has ambitious plans for further growth.
We on the verge of becoming profitable, but we need some funding to stay afloat. We're launching a Patreon page today.
This post is a long overdue report on the state of LessWrong Russia community and specifically on the Kocherga community space in Moscow. This post is also a call for donations.
Russian LessWrong community has existed for many years now, but there wasn't much info on lesswrong.com about how we're doing. The last general report by Yuu was posted in March 2013. Alexander230 made a few posts about Fallacymania which is one product, but it's far from the only interesting thing about LW Russia.
In the following text I'm going to cover:
Here's a short description of LW Russia and LW Moscow in its current state.
Our Russian Slack chat has 1500+ registered members, 150 weekly active members and 50 weekly posting members.
LessWrong.ru has a few hundred posts from Sequences and other sources (e.g. from SlateStarCodex) translated by volunteers. LessWrong.ru gets 800 daily unique visitors. There's also a wiki with >100 articles and a VK.com page with 13000 followers.
Our Moscow community hub, Kocherga, which is the main topic of this post, hosts 40–50 public events per month (45 events in June). The attendance varies from 3-5 visitors for smaller events to 20–30 visitors for larger ones.
We have ties with a local skeptic society, critical thinking crowd, pop-science communicators, a local systems management school and a local transhumanist community.
In the following text I'm going to talk mostly about LW Moscow and Kocherga, because that's what I'm involved with and that's what occupies most of my time. I've been working on Kocherga full-time since 2015, funding it by myself, and I'd love to be able to keep doing it indefinitely.
Some more specific stats about Kocherga:
Here's a very short history of LW Russia before Kocherga, from my perspective:
Content-wise we had:
We tried to organize a prediction market a few times but people lost interest quickly. We still wanted to get people to bet on their beliefs, though, so we had an idea of an internal currency which people could use to make one-on-one bets, without going through the bottleneck of a shared whiteboard. We called this currency "yudcoins". No, we're not a phyg, I promise.
At first, yudcoins were emitted on each meetup separately. We chose somethings new and cheap every time — pasta tubes, buttons, rubber bands, etc. Later, when we opened Kocherga club, we printed cards.
We got all preparations in order and found a relatively affordable venue to rent by August 2015 and opened it to the general public in September 2015.
I covered the initial spendings and most of the following losses from my savings. (I had a stock option bonus from Yandex, about $50k-100k in total, and that money was the reason Kocherga could exist for the last 3 years.)
By the way, the name "Kocherga" ("Кочерга") means "fireplace poker" and it's a reference to the Wittgenstein's Poker incident.
We're located in a semi-basement with 4 rooms:
You can find the photos of all our rooms here.
Kocherga is an anti-café (Wikipedia uses an "anti-café" spelling, but i'll use "anticafe" from now on because "anti-café" is too annoying to type), which is a popular business model in Russia: we charge a small fee for the time spent and everything else is free (tea, coffee, cookies, board games, rationality events). The fee is 2.5 rubles/minute = $0.04/minute. There's also an option to buy a monthly pass for $40–$80.
A stereotypical anticafe is targeted at college and high school students. Anticafes are places to hang out and play board games and video games. Here's what's on a schedule of events for a typical anticafe: board games; checkers; Mafia; checkers again; movie club; poetry night; board games again.
So we try to meaningfully differentiate ourselves from other anticafes.
For example, here's our schedule for a typical week:
Well... I hope that by this point in my post I provided enough evidence that we're a legitimate and at least kinda successful rationalist community and not some random people who are trying to get our hands on easy money. (Because getting enough donations to keep our project alive is definitely the goal of this post.)
The comparison with Berkeley REACH is unavoidable at this point. It's hard to make a fair comparison since I've never visited neither REACH nor the Bay Area, but I've read Reflections on Berkeley REACH and I can notice the following key differences:
We also have visitors tracking solved (the solution is standard for all anticafes): each visitor opens an order when they come in and close an order when they leave. So we get plenty of data on whether we're growing, what's the average visit duration, etc.
We worked through a huge amount of details in the last three years, and it's hard to compress it to a short list of achievements. Logistics, HR, upkeep, IT, design, advertising, knowledge organization — each of these areas took plenty of thinking and doing to work through. Of course, each of these areas is always a work-in-progress.
But the key points which I'd consider to be visible outcomes are these:
From the very beginning, I believed that we should be a community with a small cult-like following, tightly focused on the core rationality topics. Over the years I have slightly updated in the direction of being a little bit more inclusive, but I still believe we should be wary not to lose our core values along the way (although this update feels more like understanding our boundaries in more details and not like a single "how radical vs inclusive are we?" number).
This belief caused a lot of disagreements. I had the following conversation dozens of times:
Somebody: "You should have more events on a wider amount of topics — art, history, public speaking, music jams. You'll attract more people if you do this, I'd hate to see Kocherga go under because its areas of interest are so obscure. Also, I don't understand math so I feel excluded from your rationality discussions."
Me: "We need to have some kind of a boundary on which events we're happy to host and which events we try to avoid. The topics you've mentioned are more popular, which means that we'd risk drifting into the typical mainstream point in the anticafe-space. That would be bad because we want to attract disproportionally more rationality-minded people by signalling that our interests are not typical. I'd rather have a Shelling fence and lose some amount of potential visitors and income."
Still, while we tried to keep our focus, we successfully integrated into the large pop-science community:
I can't give the hard numbers, but it feels like we're well-known, respected, and don't have a reputation of being a crazy cult. I periodically stumble upon comments and posts from people who don't live in Moscow which reflect their disappointment that they can’t participate in our community. We raised $7000 last year in a crowdfunding campaign and the response was very positive.
On the negative side, our core members are, on average, more neurodivergent than the general public (with a large individual variation), as you can expect from any rationalist community, and to those who consider high Guess Culture and social awareness skills to be a basic requirement this can be aversive. I'd love to raise the average social skills level in our community, but in the meantime I'd still take a math-savvy but not-well-adjusted-socially person over the opposite any day of the week.
We’ve scaled the number of events from zero to 40–50 per month.
Here's how we got here:
Running the workshops was our original goal for Kocherga.
We assembled our curriculum from various sources, but mostly from the posts on CFAR techniques and working through the original research by ourselves.
I finally got my hands on CFAR handbook from one of the CFAR alumni last winter and was satisfied with how much we got "right" (i.e., there are no contradictions between what we teach and what CFAR teaches, and the material covers the same topics). Our workshops are typically two-days long, so they’re more condensed and don't cover everything. OTOH, we do include Bayes theorem (I heard that CFAR doesn't) and I believe we cover VNM and prospect theory in more detail, but I can't be sure about that since I didn't attend CFAR workshops myself.
Our current set of classes is:
The attendance at workshops varies from 6 to 15 people. We have a scholarship program and take 1–2 students per workshop for free or with a significant discount. We also allow our staff members to visit workshops for free when the situation allows it.
The basic price of a workshop is $320 (20,000 rubles) for two days. We've doubled it this year (from $160) and didn't notice a significant drop in sales, but we probably can't go much higher.
We offer visitors our club membership cards. These are not mandatory (you take a guest card if you don't have a club member card), but holding a club card gives you a small discount (via yudcoins which we give distribute among club members on every visit), while allowing us to track each visitor by their personal id. I'm planning to analyze the retention statistics based on this data, but haven't got around to it yet.
For the per-event statistics I wrote the Slack bot which asks a receptionist for the number of people attending an event and stores it in our database.
I also wrote a few custom online pages for the visitors:
Besides the already mentioned online services, event management system and visitors tracking, we had to solve many other infrastructure tasks:
We have an internal wiki (mediawiki) with the documentation on everything, from "how to fix the coffee machine" to "checklist for announcing new workshops".
We've got a basic hang on most of our legal and financial operations — taxes, recurring payments, labor contracts, accepting online payments.
We're managing a mailing list and two social network accounts (Facebook and VK.com — both are popular in Russia).
We're also probably the only anticafe in the world with a public API.
We're still understaffed and under-financed for maintaining our physical space. There are many small issues (ragged couches, wall paint issues, old lightbulbs) which we're constantly trying to stay on top of, but sometimes we lack cash and sometimes we lack person-hours to fix it all.
Our largest issue with the location is air conditioning, which is barely tolerable, and we're probably losing some people because of it (what's worse, we're in a negative feedback loop situation where whenever we get more visitors than usual they notice the air conditioning issue more often). The project to upgrade the air conditioning would cost around $5000 and we can't afford it right now, unfortunately.
The second largest issue is that our biggest room can only fit 40 people. We have to reject some potentially useful events (larger conferences, talks) because of this.
Our lease is year to year and the landlord is selling the location (but they're not in a hurry and the new owner would hopefully be ok with continuing to rent it to us). This is an existential risk which we can't satisfactorily solve right now — we can't afford to move and we can't buy this location ourselves (we'd love to, actually, but the price is too high for a mortgage).
Anticafe is a low profitability business even in the best case scenario. A usual cafe can serve a client in 1–2 hours and get $10–$20 in return, so their rate is $10/hour/client, while anticafe's hourly fee is $2–$2.5/hour. Cafes and anticafes are competing for the same city space, so the rent is naturally reaches the equilibria where it is just low enough for the businesses which can stay profitable to continue existing.
As far as I know, some other anticafes solve their profitability issues by entering the race to the bottom — drop the price as low as you can, stuff as many high school students as possible in the same room, get a hold on their attention with video and board games, it'll be loud and overcrowded, but you'll survive. While you're engaging in this process, throw under the bus all your expectations about your target audience and about what kind of community you're trying to build, because if people are asking for FIFA on PlayStation, give them FIFA and shut up about your boring rationality topics.
Ok, I'm not saying that this Moloch menace is the main reason why we're not yet consistently profitable: we're not yet overcrowded, we could do a better work of building a community faster, we could work more and be rewarded with more attention from those who are a good culture fit for Kocherga (we definitely don't have market saturation issues yet, Moscow is a big city). I'm just saying that we had to be careful with the tradeoff between quicker growth and keeping our values intact.
I believe we could reach the positive cash flow in a few months, but I also know I was overconfident about this last year and the year before that, so I distrust my own predictions on this.
Expenses per month:
Total expenses: around $8700 on average; the actual amount is something like $7500–$10000 with 80% confidence.
Total revenue: $6000–$9000.
So, as you can see, we've been losing from $1000 to $3000 per month. This gap has been decreasing over time (a year ago I considered a -$3000 month to be bad and -$1500 month to be normal; right now -$1500 is bad and from -$500 is ok), but we're almost out of money. Actually, depending on the time of the month, sometimes we're completely out of money.
September is nigh. September can bring us a large influx of visitors. Especially considering that Russian translation of HPMoR will go into print and we're the main pick-up point for it. There's a crowdfunding campaign going on for printing HPMoR's Russian translation which raised $70000 so far; HPMoR is quite popular in Russia.
But I'm not sure we can make it without bankrupting — we're very financially vulnerable right now and any unexpected emergency can blow us off our path. And, of course, working with zero cash runway is frustrating and wasteful — we can't invest into any long-term projects, we can't afford salaries for talented community members which would be up for the job but have to work on something else instead, we can't outsource everyday errands to free ourselves for more important work.
Managing a business is a full time job and often it's a distraction from our main mission of raising the sanity waterline and growing the community. Someone had to do it, and I still believe this is was a good investment of time and effort. I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy it — building an infrastructure for the community to enjoy is very satisfying. We’ve changed the lives of many people for the better; people meet their partners, change their careers, find jobs, read Sequences, discuss and update their beliefs because of us.
Still, building a happy community is not the goal. Changing the world is. We should expand much further, improve our rationality curriculum, work on teaching skills, write blog posts and books (Pion is writing a book currently; I'd love to do the same but I'm constantly overwhelmed with all this business management work), do some serious research, stir up more activity in the larger rationalist community in Russia, and so on.
More specifically, in the next few years I hope we'll:
Here are a few reasons why donating to Kocherga might be a good idea:
How much do we need?
Note that all these numbers are crude estimations and don't take into account Patreon fees and Russian taxes (6% flat rate).
Extra option: one-time sum in a range of $100k–250k would allow us to buy the current venue, which would have a huge impact on everything else. ($250k would cover the full price of the venue; $100k is the lower bound after which I'd seriously consider a mortgage. Owning the venue would also mean that we could invest in a major overhaul without worrying about long-term returns.)
We're launching a Patreon page today.