To Be Of Use

TheNaturalEnterpriseDave Smith has come to the same point I have in his thinking about business and entrepreneurship, but he got there by a completely different route. Whereas Dave’s background is conservative (his father was an evangelical minister), my background is liberal. Though we’ve both helped build and guide many entrepreneurial businesses, Dave learned about business from the grass-roots, by trial and error, whereas I come at it from a business advisory, consulting perspective. And while Dave’s book To Be Of Use urges us all to be driven by global human values to find and do ‘meaningful work’, my book The Natural Enterprise urges entrepreneurs to follow nature’s principles, and use bold idealistic approaches that work, to establish responsible, joyful businesses with people you love.

The big difference between our books is that while The Natural Enterprise tells you how to set up a responsible entrepreneurial business, To Be Of Use tells you why to do so. In that sense the books complement each other perfectly.

As I mentioned the other day, Dave Smith has a remarkable record as founder and supporter of responsible, sustainable businesses. The first half of his book is heavily autobiographical. Dave tells us how he came to reject the more orthodox and inflexible teachings of the church and came instead to espouse the values of the church by establishing small businesses that tapped into unmet needs and made the world a better place. He insisted that these workplaces be places of love, that their work be meaningful for all, and that they be non-hierarchical and cooperative. He describes what he calls Creative Action Heroes — people who do something different, courageously, without expectation of reward, and says that we all have the potential and the inner drive to be such heroes.

Dave’s heroes exemplify the seven principles of Christianity and other enduring religions — faith, hope, justice, temperance, prudence, courage and love — and range from the well-known like Cesar Chavez (with whom Dave has worked) and Gandhi to the millions of caring entrepreneurs who are making a living for themselves and others without compromising their values or social and environmental responsibility in the interest of profit or growth. To Dave, entrepreneurship is about service, not wealth, compassion, not fame, and responsibility, not power. Why, he laments, is so much work love-less and meaning-less?

He is a fierce defender of the brave social experiment of the 1960s and 1970s, and lists that era’s impressive accomplishments: civil rights, farm workers’ contracts, free universities, cooperatives, healthier foods, community-based businesses, the ending of the Vietnam War, the shut-down of nuclear plants, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act, improvements in women’s rights, human potential and alternative health. He is unhappy that this era is today so quickly shrugged off as a period of naivety and selfishness, and he tells the real story of this era (which is very much Dave’s own story — he was in the midst of so many of these changes) patiently and honestly. He persuades those of us who are too young to remember this important time, and those of us who were there but have somehow forgotten, how much we have to learn from this not-so-distant history.

Some particularly remarkable lessons:

  • The Importance of Pictures: It was images of the atrocities of war that moved moderates to demand a withdrawal from and end to the Vietnam War. Why are we not seeing similar images of the atrocities in Iraq, except for the rare exceptions like Abu Ghraib, on the front pages of the daily newspapers and newsmagazines, even now when it is becoming increasingly apparent that the invasion of Iraq was as horrific a mistake as Vietnam?
  • The Liberation of Wanting Less: We were fiercely anti-materialistic in the 1960s, scorning those who put profits ahead of people. Where did that sensibility, born of the baby boom generation, go? Why, when so many of us feel trapped in meaningless jobs, do we not realize that wanting less and living with less gives us the freedom to find work that has more meaning? Why, when we see younger people equating success with possessions, and popularity with appearance, do we not speak up in protest?
  • Organized Labour is Usually Good: While we all recognize that unions have sometimes been guilty of excesses, why have we thrown the baby out with the bathwater and written off the entire concept of organized labour as an outmoded anachronism? Why when outsourcing is being used to dismantle organizations and gut employee benefits that were once the pride of many organizations (and an important recruiting and retention tool) are these benefits now considered unaffordable luxuries? Why are we silent when offshoring work to struggling nations is gutting what remains of the North American middle class? Even Whole Foods, Dave points out, is virulently anti-union. 
  • People Will Pay More for Ethical Goods: In the 1960s and 1970s people showed that they were willing to pay more for products produced ethically, in a socially and environmentally responsible way. What has now given us the idea that people are no longer willing or able to pay a premium for products that say “Made in America”, “Union Made”, “Fair Trade”, “Certified Organic”, “Free Farmed”, or “Against Animal Testing”? Why are we sheepish about telling retailers we want the choice of such products in everything we buy?
  • The Value of Community Based Farming: Although the myths of industrial agriculture (that it’s sufficient to feed the world, safe, healthy, nutritious, cheaper than community-based, efficient, more varied, and not harmful to the environment, and that biotech solves more agricultural problems than it creates) have been thoroughly debunked, almost no one seems aware of this, and industrial agriculture is increasing its stranglehold in North America. Why aren’t people being told about this — by their schools, the opposition parties, the media, the churches?
  • The Need to Restore Economic Democracy: At some point in history, we seem to have lost track of the fact that the economic system is an essential a part of democracy as the political system. In the West, political democracy has largely been reduced to a ballot every four years or so, a choice between lesser evils that is already somewhat rigged in favour of the incumbent. Our economic system is overtly undemocratic, and exercises enormous influence over the political system, rather than being regulated by it as our nations’ founders intended. When did we ever come to believe that we can have democracy without economic democracy, without one-person-one-vote equal say in how our economy operates?

In the latter chapters, Dave describes some examples of community-based business coops (the one he helped found in California, and the Mondragon coop in Spain), and alternative financing options (credit unions, and Direct Public Offerings, where customers own shares) as models for aspiring entrepreneurs to consider.

Dave sees the world through a different frame, one more humanistic and morally-driven, and less idealistic and naturalistic, than mine. We’re about the same age, and went through a lot of common experiences, so it’s interesting that, while we see so many of the same answers for making work meaningful, we see them through such different lenses. Dave is a fan of consultant and OD pioneer Peter Block, who espouses finding a balance between “what is good for the soul, good for the customer, and good for the health of the larger organization”.

I’m a bit more uncompromising, as I see no necessary tension between these three things. As I’ve said in The Natural Enterprise, most high-stress, high-struggle, hard-work, constant-compromise businesses fail to do four things, none of which they teach you in business school:

  1. If you do your research properly and thoroughly before you begin, you can virtually eliminate the risk of business failure and the stress that goes with it.
  2. If you finance your business organically, you owe less, and those you owe appreciate the value of what you do and demand neither exorbitant returns on or influence over the business in return for their investment, so the business is always fully in your control.
  3. If you market your business virally, your overhead costs are dramatically less and your message is dramatically more powerful.
  4. If you do business as equal partners with people you love and whose skills complement your own, and you agree on operating principles at the outset, all of the managerial and ‘HR’ issues of your company (salaries, recruitment, motivation, promotion, absenteeism, strategy and unpopular executive decision-making) disappear. There is no hierarchy and everyone makes decisions collaboratively and improvisationally, making your company resilient and keeping you and your co-workers empowered and happy.

I don’t think this is idealistic — I’ve seen it work in many companies. I also don’t think it’s at all inconsistent with what Dave Smith is advocating. His book should be enough to whet your appetite for a boldly different, responsible, egalitarian type of entrepreneurship. Mine will provide the prescription for getting it up and running successfully.

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