Rationalist Community Hub in Moscow: 3 Years Retrospective

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:

  • His­tory of LW Rus­sia from 2013 to 2015

  • His­tory of Kocherga an­ti­cafe, the ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity space we started in 2015

  • The list of Kocherga’s suc­cesses and failures, as well as some ten­ta­tive com­par­i­sons be­tween Kocherga and Berkeley REACH.

  • Our cur­rent fi­nan­cial situ­a­tion, which is the main rea­son I’m tak­ing the time to do this write-up now.

Cur­rent state of Rus­sian and Moscow community

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.

There are reg­u­lar mee­tups in Saint-Peters­burg (hard to mea­sure, they had a few pivots in their ap­proach in the last few years) and in Yeka­ter­in­burg.

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:

  • We get 1000 non-unique vis­its per month.

  • The lower bound on the num­ber of unique vis­i­tors per month is 150, but that doesn’t in­clude “anony­mous” vis­i­tors who don’t have a club card and so can’t be tracked across differ­ent days; also, it doesn’t say any­thing about the num­ber of ra­tio­nal­ity-ad­ja­cent vis­i­tors (some peo­ple use Kocherga space for their own goals—cowork­ing, etc.)

  • The to­tal num­ber of peo­ple who par­ti­ci­pated in our paid ap­plied ra­tio­nal­ity courses and work­shops over the last 3 years is 150+, not in­clud­ing a few cor­po­rate train­ings and sum­mer camps.

  • Our monthly rev­enue is $6000–$9000, de­pend­ing on the time of the year and on whether we skipped a work­shop that month.

  • Our monthly ex­penses is around $8500. (Half of it is rent, I’ll provide a de­tailed fi­nan­cial break­down be­low.)

  • We have maaaybe 2–3 months of cash run­way left at this point :(

  • Al­most all our events are ei­ther di­rectly con­nected to ra­tio­nal­ity (LW mee­tups, ra­tio­nal­ity do­jos, non­vi­o­lent com­mu­ni­ca­tion prac­tice, Se­quences dis­cus­sion) or at least ra­tio­nal­ity-al­igned (top­ics vary from pop-sci to board games).

LW Rus­sia be­fore 2015

Here’s a very short his­tory of LW Rus­sia be­fore Kocherga, from my per­spec­tive:

  • There was some ac­tivity in 2011–2012 be­fore I joined. (Yuu and turchin were among peo­ple who or­ga­nized those mee­tups.)

  • I joined in Jan­uary 2013; I was work­ing at Yan­dex at that time and was able to provide a space for mee­tups in their office.

  • 2013 and 2014 were a pe­riod of a big growth: we started with 8–10 at­ten­dees per meetup and grew up to 30–40 and some­times 50 at­ten­dees by mid-2014.

  • By the end of 2014 we had some drama and a set­back due to some of the key mem­bers leav­ing.

  • End of 2014 was the first time we made a se­ri­ous at­tempt to put to­gether a CFAR-like work­shop, but that first at­tempt didn’t suc­ceed be­cause of the afore­men­tioned drama.

  • At the same time Pion and I have de­cided that open­ing a ra­tio­nal­ity hub would be awe­some and started schem­ing.

  • We never got back to hav­ing 50 con­cur­rent at­ten­dees (our space is not big enough to fit so many peo­ple any­way), but I feel like the com­mu­nity is sig­nifi­cantly larger now than it was in 2014. We com­pen­sate for the lower per-event at­ten­dance with the to­tal num­ber of events.

Activities

Con­tent-wise we had:

  • Reg­u­lar bi-weekly mee­tups with talks on var­i­ous top­ics:

    • light­ning talks on fal­la­cies and biases

    • var­i­ous ra­tio­nal­ity-ad­ja­cent topics

    • ran­dom sam­ple from one of the events: sym­bolic self-com­ple­tion the­ory talk; bi­nau­ral rhythms talk; train­ing game; how to mea­sure any­thing talk; de­bates in the “Karl Pop­per” format

  • A few peo­ple (Alexan­der230 and oth­ers) de­vel­oped the Fal­la­cy­ma­nia game and started play­ing it reg­u­larly.

  • We be­gan to do video record­ings.

In­ter­nal currency

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.

Kocherga an­ti­cafe (2015—…)

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.

Location

We’re lo­cated in a semi-base­ment with 4 rooms:

  • The Lec­ture Room (50 sq.m., the largest one; it fits 20 peo­ple com­fortably and 30-40 peo­ple when­ever nec­es­sary)

  • The GEB Room (30 sq.m., walls dec­o­rated with the Godel’s por­tait, Escher pain­ing and Bach’s mu­sic)

  • The Chi­nese Room (17 sq.m.; it had a chi­nese-styled wal­l­pa­per when we moved in and we couldn’t pass the op­por­tu­nity)

  • The Sum­mer Room (9 sq.m., the small­est one; we in­stalled metal-hal­ide lamps in there so it can be used for the light ther­apy; Moscow win­ters are cold and tough)

You can find the pho­tos of all our rooms here.

An­ti­cafe

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.

  • We have a shelf with board games but don’t host generic board games events like other an­ti­cafes do.

  • We avoided video game con­soles for a long time; we have two PlayS­ta­tion con­soles now, though.

  • We’re care­ful with what we put on our sched­ule, in gen­eral: no art classes, po­etry evenings or yoga train­ings (we could re­con­sider if the event is or­ga­nized by the known com­mu­nity mem­ber, but we won’t ac­cept such events by out­siders in or­der to es­tab­lish a Schel­ling fence).

For ex­am­ple, here’s our sched­ule for a typ­i­cal week:

Mon­day:

  • Ra­tion­al­ity dojo on pre­mortems.

  • Math sem­i­nar on com­bi­na­torics.

Tues­day:

  • Street episte­mol­ogy prac­tice.

Wed­nes­day:

  • A talk by Vik­to­ria Val­ikova from the Health&Help pro­ject.

  • Game night: Fal­la­cy­ma­nia and a few other games cre­ated by Alexan­der230.

Thurs­day:

  • Non­vi­o­lent com­mu­ni­ca­tion prac­tice.

Fri­day:

  • Se­quences read­ing club.

Satur­day:

  • A talk on the topic of cog­ni­tive reap­praisal.

Sun­day:

  • reg­u­lar LessWrong meetup; top­ics cov­ered in the meetup in­cluded:

    • CFAR ra­tio­nal­ity habits check­list;

    • Great De­pres­sion and Key­ne­sian eco­nomics;

    • EDT vs CDT and other de­ci­sion the­o­ries.

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.)

Kocherga vs Berkeley REACH

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:

  1. We charge money for vis­it­ing. This definitely cuts off some po­ten­tial mem­bers, but it also al­lows us to pay (some part of) the rent, so we can stay open to the gen­eral pub­lic and provide the re­fresh­ments. (I’d ex­pect the space to be­come flooded by the gen­eral au­di­ence look­ing for a cowork­ing space if the vis­it­ing was no-strings-at­tached free, and then we’d have to look for a differ­ent bar­rier to en­try.)

  2. We don’t provide a place for the peo­ple to crash. There are sev­eral rea­sons for that. First, while we have fold­able couches, we don’t have a shower or a real kitchen. Se­cond, we’re lo­cated in a base­ment of an apart­ment house, and its res­i­dents could de­cide that we’re an ille­gal hos­tel and prob­a­bly get us evicted if they dis­liked us enough.

  3. We have a team of 6–7 paid re­cep­tion­ists who meet the vis­i­tors, track their time, keep the space clean, an­swer the phone, etc. Not all of them are com­mit­ted ra­tio­nal­ists, but most are at least par­tially in­ter­ested and ex­cited about the topic.

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.

Suc­cesses

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:

  • We kept our fo­cus on ra­tio­nal­ity and have a rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing the place for ev­ery­thing ra­tio­nal­ity re­lated.

  • We have a healthy com­mu­nity with a high bus fac­tor.

  • We have a pro­gram for our two day ra­tio­nal­ity work­shop (and some­times three-week course with the same con­tent but the differ­ent ped­a­gog­i­cal ap­proach) which we held for 15 times since 2016, to­tal­ing 150+ grad­u­ates.

  • We built the in­fras­truc­ture (both tech­ni­cal and or­ga­ni­za­tional) for man­ag­ing our day-to-day op­er­a­tions.

Fo­cus and reputation

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.

Com­mu­nity and events

We’ve scaled the num­ber of events from zero to 40–50 per month.

Here’s how we got here:

  • Our Sun­day LW mee­tups are or­ga­nized by sev­eral differ­ent peo­ple and are cur­rently at the point where I don’t have to spend any effort to make sure they’re hap­pen­ing.

  • Some reg­u­lar events got launched with­out my par­ti­ci­pa­tion by the com­mu­nity mem­bers (e.g., Street Episte­mol­ogy).

  • Some reg­u­lar events were boot­strapped by me or some­one else and then passed over to the new or­ga­niz­ers.

    • e.g., I lead our ra­tio­nal­ity do­jos for the first two years, and now they are con­ducted by some­one else.

    • an­other ex­am­ple: last year I ran two one-day non­vi­o­lent com­mu­ni­ca­tion train­ings, one guy got in­ter­ested, vol­un­teered to run NVC train­ings weekly, and have been do­ing so for more than a year since then

  • I’ve put a lot of effort into our in­ter­nal events man­age­ment sys­tem; it au­to­mates the post­ings to 3 on­line ser­vices (Face­book, VK, Timepad), gen­er­ates an­nounce­ment images, col­lects the at­ten­dance statis­tics through the Slack bot, etc. It al­lowed us to cut down the time spent on each event from 20–30 min­utes per event to ~5 min­utes.

  • We usu­ally have a ded­i­cated per­son who in­vites ex­ter­nal speak­ers (one or two talks per week); these talks let us at­tract a non-LW-but-ad­ja­cent crowd (first step of the fun­nel), some of which get in­ter­ested and join the ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity later.

Ra­tion­al­ity workshops

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:

  • Day 1:

    • Goal Fac­tor­ing

    • In­ner Si­mu­la­tor

    • Pre­mortems

    • Ex­pected Utility (VNM, prospect the­ory)

    • bonus: Re­solve Cy­cles

  • Day 2:

    • TAPs and De­liber­ate Prac­tice

    • Aver­sion Fac­tor­ing

    • bonus: GTD

    • In­ter­nal Dou­ble Crux

    • Prob­a­bil­ities (refer­ence groups, Bayes the­o­rem)

    • bonus: Re­cur­sion (i.e. “let’s ap­ply ra­tio­nal­ity skills to our task of aquiring ra­tio­nal­ity skills”)

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.

Some data:

  • 2016: 4 work­shops in Moscow.

  • 2017:

    • 6 workshops

    • 1 more work­shop in Saint-Petersburg

    • 1 three-week course (one day per week + home­work as­sign­ments)

    • 3 cor­po­rate workshops

    • a sum­mer camp school with an in­ten­sive two-week program

  • 2018 so far:

    • 2 three-week courses

    • 4 workshops

    • one ex­per­i­men­tal “ra­tio­nal­ity for ex­ec­u­tives” course

    • 1 cor­po­rate workshop

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.

Visi­tor track­ings and other automations

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:

  • https://​​now.kocherga.club/​​ dis­plays the cur­rent num­ber of vis­i­tors at the mo­ment, as well as the list of names of those club mem­bers who opted-in for their pres­ence to be dis­closed.

  • https://​​book­ing.kocherga.club/​​ can be used to re­serve a room on a given date with­out both­er­ing to call or mes­sage any­one.

  • https://​​cook­ies.kocherga.club/​​ is a FaceMash-like ser­vice for ex­tract­ing our vis­i­tors prefer­ences about cook­ies. We had a lot of fun an­a­lyz­ing the col­lected data (with statis­ti­cal mod­els, jupyter note­books and gra­di­ent de­scents).

Other infrastructure

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.

Failures and key is­sues

Phys­i­cal space

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).

Profita­bil­ity

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.

Fi­nan­cial breakdown

Ex­penses per month:

  • Rent: $3500

  • Clean­ing ser­vices: $300

  • Salaries (sev­eral re­cep­tion­ists and one full-time man­ager): $1700

  • Sup­plies (cook­ies, coffee, tea, milk, pa­per, white­board mark­ers, etc.): $800

  • Taxes: $900 on av­er­age (varies from month to month, I’m not sure how pre­cise this num­ber is)

  • My per­sonal ex­penses: $1000, half of which is rent (I don’t pay salary to my­self be­cause I’m a sole pro­pri­etor; this also means that I’m legally ac­countable for all our fi­nances with ev­ery­thing I have and own, which for­tu­nately isn’t much any­way)

  • On­go­ing re­pairs and oc­ca­sion­ally buy­ing new stuff: varies from month to month; let’s say $500

To­tal ex­penses: around $8700 on av­er­age; the ac­tual amount is some­thing like $7500–$10000 with 80% con­fi­dence.

Rev­enue:

  • Pay-per-time rev­enue: $5000–$5500 (lower in sum­mer, higher in win­ter; July 2018 was our best month ever, which is a good sign)

  • Ra­tion­al­ity work­shops and other train­ings: $1500–$3500 de­pend­ing on our train­ings sched­ule.

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.

Our fu­ture plans (as­sum­ing we stay afloat)

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:

  • Ex­pand our in­struc­tors team to 8–10 peo­ple; train 300–500 stu­dents per year.

  • Open a few more ra­tio­nal­ity spaces in other cities in Rus­sia. (This would be tough, but our in­fras­truc­ture is solid and it makes sense to try to scale it up.)

  • Find a new venue in Moscow with more space, air con­di­tion­ing and nat­u­ral light­ing. (Re­mem­ber, we’re cur­rently lo­cated in a base­ment.)

  • In­crease our brand recog­ni­tion ten­fold or more.

  • Pub­lish a few books, re­lease an on­line ra­tio­nal­ity course, make our work­shops more effec­tive and im­pres­sive.

  • En­gage the lo­cal ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity more, spon­sor the tal­ented mem­bers with tar­geted grants which would al­low them to pro­duce more con­tent and help the move­ment.

  • Give back to the English-speak­ing ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity — post more on LessWrong.com, share our ex­pe­riences and suc­cesses.

  • Figure out how to ap­proach ra­tio­nal­ity re­search — both on how af­fect peo­ple’s lives (a la CFAR lon­gi­tu­dal study) and on the core ra­tio­nal­ity top­ics and on how to im­prove the state-of-the-art ap­proaches.

How much do we need?

Here are a few rea­sons why donat­ing to Kocherga might be a good idea:

  • We’re cur­rently fund­ing-con­strained, not tal­ent-con­strained.

  • Rent, salaries and taxes in Moscow are sig­nifi­cantly lower, so im­pact-per-dol­lar here would be higher than in Bay Area or New York or most other large US cities.

  • Coun­ter­fac­tu­ally, los­ing Kocherga would be a big loss of util­ity for a lot of peo­ple.

  • Our ex­is­tence is prob­a­bly mak­ing a pos­i­tive im­pact even for the ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity in the US, sim­ply by in­creas­ing the num­ber of peo­ple who get in­ter­ested in ra­tio­nal­ity and be­come in­volved in global EA ac­tivi­ties, AI safety or even re­lo­cate to USA (it’s hard to mea­sure, though).

How much do we need?

  • $1000/​month would sig­nifi­cantly in­crease our chances of stay­ing afloat.

  • $2000/​month would mean that we can be con­fi­dent about stay­ing afloat, as well as al­low us to im­prove and grow faster (by hiring one more full time staff mem­ber or by hiring one part-time staff mem­ber and di­rect­ing ex­tra cash to ren­o­va­tions); the only risk would be ex­is­ten­tial about be­ing evicted by the land­lord or about the venue be­ing sold to some­one who doesn’t want to rent it to us.

  • at $3000/​month or higher we’d start look­ing for a new venue in a few months or con­sider a mort­gage for the cur­rent venue.

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.)

Ways to donate

We’re launch­ing a Pa­treon page to­day.

Alter­na­tives: