Finding the Sweet Spot — In Your Community

traditional corporation vs natural enterprise
This is the third in a series of articles about my new book Finding the Sweet Spot. The book is available from most booksellers or online from the sites listed in the right sidebar. A synopsis of the book is here. A complete set of reviews of the book (thank you, reviewers!) can be found on Beth Patterson’s site here.

We are all longing to go home to some place we have never beenóa place half-remembered and half-envisioned we can only catch glimpses of from time to time. Community. Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power. Community means strength that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done. Arms to hold us when we falter. A circle of healing. A circle of friends. Someplace where we can be free. — Starhawk

A number of the radio stations that have interviewed me about my book have asked about community-based businesses. Specifically, they have asked whether small locally-owned businesses stand a chance against the Wal-Marts of the world with their massive buying power, advertising reach and (when they need rezoning and favourable tax incentives to locate in your community) political clout. They’ve also asked whether you really can be a “good corporate citizen” — whether you can succeed without inevitably compromising your principles and quality just to compete with the big ugly multinational corporations.

These are good questions. The answer to both is Yes — provided you go about it the right way.

Most small businesses, unfortunately, start with a product or service that they would like to provide and/or think they can provide well (usually one not very different from what already exists in the community), and then try to find a market and financing for it. This gets entrepreneurship exactly backwards.

The Natural Entreprise approach starts by going into the community and talking and meeting with its people, and discovering their unmet needs. Then, you work with your partners, your networks, prospective customers and suppliers, and members of the community to innovate a solution to that need that is significantly different from anything out in the market now. Something that prospective customers, as “co-inventors” of your product or service, are already sold on. Something the people you have met in the process of doing your research and innovation are likely so enthused about that they may well seek to invest in your enterprise, as partners with you. Something that the people in your community, having been involved in the design and development process, will want to encourage and support as something that benefits the whole community, not just the company’s absentee owners.

Traditional corporations rely on a few “competitive advantages” (aside from using their power to lobby governments for subsidies, tax breaks, trade agreements, and other favours, and forming oligopolies to reduce choice and fix prices), to attract customers and try to dominate their markets — including those in your local community.

These “competitive advantages” are: (1) name recognition, (2) popular brand, (3) low price, and (4) operating “efficiency”. These advantages come at a steep cost to those in our communities:

  • The popular brand comes at a cost of reduced choice and variety. It’s one-size-fits-all, and if that size doesn’t fit the needs of your community, they don’t care — they’ll sell it elsewhere.
  • The low price often comes with an horrific social and environmental price tag, which these corporations “externalize” to us as citizens, taxpayers, unemployed and wage-slave workers, and sufferers from the effects of environmental degradation. Not to mention the future generations who have to clean up the problems they leave behind when they close to seek more lucrative markets and lower costs elsewhere.
  • The efficiency comes at a cost of quality, service, attention, and care. These corporations reduce us from people to mere consumers, and they are driven to push us to buy more and more, of the same stuff everyone else buys, and reduce us to automatons who, as my friend Jerry Michalski famously put it, become merely “gullets who live only to gulp products and crap cash.”

Many people are beginning to rebel against the offerings of these large, faceless, global oligopoly corporations, and rediscover the advantage of buying locally-made, healthy, carefully crafted products and services from producers who actually care about what they do and the people they do it for.

This is what Natural Enterprise is all about. The advantages of dealing with a Natural Enterprise as customers and community members are:

  • Personal relationship, which brings with it knowledge, trust, partnership, friendship, and even love
  • Customization, the ability to really have it your way
  • Local, just-in-time, responsive and responsible service
  • No pressure to buy what you don’t want or need, since the Natural Enterprise is not dependent on growth for survival, and has already established that the community’s customers need what they produce
  • Reciprocity, since the Natural Enterprise is part of the community
  • Cost savings that stem from the local Natural Enterprise not having to pay large management salaries, charge big markups (to achieve the high return on investment demanded by shareholders), or heavy advertising, marketing, transportation, or packaging costs to bring stuff in from far away and try to pressure you to buy it
  • Resilience and sustainability, because of Natural Enterprises’ superior improvisational capacity and focus on customers’ evolving needs and effectiveness rather than “efficiency”; they won’t leave town or suddenly go broke when economic or market conditions change
  • Quality and durability (no tainted crap from indifferent factories half a world away)
  • The appeal to altruism: It feels good to do business with an enterprise that is good to its people, its community, and its environment and good for the local economy

In a real sense a Natural Enterprise is a community within a community, and the principles and processes and values of the Natural Enterprise “community” and the neighborhood community in which it operates reflect and reinforce each other.

In his book The Company We Keep, John Abrams explains how the dynamics of his company and the dynamics of the greater community in which it is located interact powerfully, and how his company and his community partner and help build and strengthen each other. It is essential that Natural Enterprises be involved and active and engaged in building and helping the neighborhood that is their home, and draw in return strength from that larger community.

I think one of the things that is so appealing about Natural Enterprise, beside the fact that it is instinctive and joyful, is that in our modern world we long for a renewed sense of community, to belong to a place as part of a group of people with common Purpose, and, as Dave Smith argues so eloquently, to be of use, of service, to that community. Natural Enterprise, as a community within a larger community, gives us that sense of belonging, purpose, and usefulness twice over.

Give people a real choice between a responsible, local, community-based Natural Enterprise and a sprawling, anonymous and indifferent industrial corporation, and it’s pretty obvious whom most will choose to do business with. They’re just waiting for you, and your NaturalEnterprise, to give them that choice. 

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