Awaiting the Sustainable Enterprise Revolution

BLOG Incubating Entrepreneurship

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Six steps to sustainable, community-based Natural Enterprise, from my book Finding the Sweet Spot

I‘m in Denver for the weekend at the annual conference of BALLE, the international network of community-based sustainable businesses. The reason I’m here is more about looking for ideas than personal networking. One of the mandates I’ve taken on in my current work is to make our association (the Chartered Accountants of Canada, equivalent to CPAs in the US) champions of entrepreneurship and of new, sustainable enterprise formation.

The reason we’re championing entrepreneurs is that no one else will. It’s an interesting paradox that the North American economy is driven by entrepreneurs (virtually all new net employment in the last decade has been in the entrepreneurial sector), not by big corporations, but all the money and attention flows to the big corporations. Entrepreneurs don’t get bailouts, massive incentives to locate in your community, or big unpublicized government subsidies. Universities say they teach entrepreneurship but what they do is the minimum (‘intrapreneurship’) lip service to get big corporations to fund ‘chairs in entrepreneurship’ that let them hire and retain professors. Economic Development Offices of governments at various levels are designed to attract businesses (i.e. property and business tax revenues) so their work for entrepreneurs is mostly low-budget, low-value work like providing names of lawyers and accountants and telling you how to get business licenses, incorporate and file taxes.

Accountants and lawyers (especially the smaller ones) will take on entrepreneurs as clients, but generally are unenthusiastic and not terribly helpful for businesses at the critical start-up stage. Bankers (with the notable exception of credit unions) generally avoid entrepreneurial businesses, and lenders of last resort are usually vultures who create more problems for entrepreneurs than they solve. BALLE founder Michael Shuman has written about these challenges in his book The Small-Mart Revolution.

What’s worse, in some progressive circles, the very word ‘entrepreneur’ is suspect — it’s almost as if profit and enterprise are considered necessarily exploitative.

If you’ve read my book, you know that what entrepreneurs need, more (and sooner) than they need accountants, lawyers, marketers or financing is:

  1. Help to determine what kind of work they’re meant to do (something in their ‘sweet spot’)
  2. Help to understand how business fundamentally works (and how that’s changing very quickly)
  3. Help to find the right partners (not expensive consultants and suppliers with no stake in the enterprise)
  4. Help to learn to do excellent market research (to surface real unmet needs)
  5. Help to learn to innovate (so they do something sufficiently different from what’s already being provided, and hence are commercially viable)
  6. Help to establish strong business networks and relationships
  7. Help to cope with unexpected problems, and to become more resilient 

Most of this assistance that prospective entrepreneurs need is educational, but it’s not the kind of learning that you can get sitting in a classroom or reading a text. You learn this through conversation and collaboration with other entrepreneurs, and you learn it by doing it, and making (inexpensive, early) mistakes.

As I’ve written before, I’ve spoken to many universities about a course curriculum that would entail students going out and visiting with successful entrepreneurs, engaging in Q&A with the entrepreneurs on how they addressed the seven issues above, and then putting together and launching their own enterprise. No lectures, no classrooms, no examination — the measure of the course’s success is whether the students’ enterprises succeed or not. The professors I know are enthusiastic, and I’ve had no trouble finding entrepreneurs who’d love to volunteer their time to talk about and show off their businesses. The problem is that the universities’ business model is about filling expensive class buildings with large numbers of students, and finding work for, retaining and paying tenured professors, and my proposal flies in the face of that, so when I talk with university Deans and department heads, they are uninterested.

Same problem with high schools. You all know my opinion on the school system — it’s anti-learning, bureaucratic, and propagandizing. Most of those incarcerated there are bored, disengaged, impatient and often angry. Even if we could get a good program into the high school curriculum (which is doubtful) it’s unlikely that the students would pay attention or trust that it would be of any use to them. My father is an honorary lifetime member of an organization called Junior Achievement, an organization whose objective is to introduce high schoolers to the fundamentals of business and entrepreneurship. It’s been around forever, and a lot of volunteers have spent years working to make it a success, but it’s still marginal — it’s just too counter to the high school culture.

There is no political party in North America that authentically shares the interests of entrepreneurs. There is no money, influence, public sentiment or political advantage to be gleaned from this cohort. Like the working poor, entrepreneurs are disenfranchised and have no seat at the tables of lobbyists and decision-makers.

So what are we to do? If governments and politicians don’t care (they don’t yet realize that their economies rise and fall with the success and failure of sustainable small enterprises, and that support for these enterprises has 30 times the return on investment of large corporation subsidies), big businesses are hostile, and schools and universities can’t help, who are the prospective sustainable entrepreneur’s allies? Who cares, or should care, about entrepreneurs?

The short answer is: people in communities. Sustainable community-based enterprises create and keep local jobs, keep the money in the community, provide goods and services customized to local needs, and cause less pollution and waste than the multinational corporate oligopolies. They also contribute more to the GDP (if you think that’s still a useful measure of anything).

The problem is that people in communities aren’t organized, aren’t wealthy, and aren’t informed. Most don’t appreciate that they could succeed (by every measure) in their own small sustainable enterprise far better than in their current wage slave job. Few know how important small enterprises are to the economy, or can imagine how uninnovative our society would be without the impetus of entrepreneurs. What can you do to address a need that hasn’t been recognized by those who need it?

To launch a true sustainable entrepreneurial movement, we need to figure out three things:

  • How can we teach millions of people a survival skill (namely, how to make a living for yourself) that many groups don’t want them to learn (they want us kept helpless and in thrall to the job market), and that most don’t even realize they need?
  • How do we then help these millions to self-organize into Natural Enterprises?
  • How do we avoid successful entrepreneurs quickly cashing out their businesses as soon as they get a lucrative offer from a member of a multinational corporate oligopoly?

I don’t think books are enough to solve the first problem. Nor are social networking tools the answer to the second.

The truth about human nature is that we don’t change our minds or our behaviour until we believe we have no choice. When the economy really collapses, wiping out whole industries, currencies, and wealthy conglomerates, the choice for millions, as it was in the 1930s, will be between entrepreneurship and starvation. Only when this happens will people scramble to find ways to learn entrepreneurial skills, and to find business partners.

We are heading into a period of great economic uncertainty, turbulence and volatility. The job market for the next two decades is likely to go “wildly sideways”. By that time, the centenary of the last Great Depression, other crises like the End of Oil, the End of Water, global political upheaval and climate change will combine with the crisis of an overextended economy (unsustainable personal, corporate and government debt levels, exhausted natural resources, whipsawing interest, inflation and currency rates, and plunging consumer spending and confidence) to produce a prolonged economic inferno. The resultant massive unemployment will spur an entrepreneurial explosion out of desperate necessity. After some initial stumbles, we’ll see a change as profound as the Industrial Revolution. The community-based economy will be born, and it will be entrepreneurial by default.

That doesn’t mean my association’s championing of sustainable entrepreneurship now is futile. People may ‘get’ the ‘sustainable’ part (and make their businesses, of all sizes, greener, simply because it makes good business sense), without getting the ‘entrepreneurship’ part — and that would be much better than nothing. And enough people (especially boomers and new entrants to the job market) will make the effort to learn entrepreneurial skills because, for these substantial cohorts, wage slavery is already ceasing to be an option — the wage slave jobs are rapidly being offshored. When they realize that MBA schools don’t teach entrepreneurship (and change too slowly to start doing so), they’ll use online and real-world resources and relationships to teach each other the necessary skills, and self-organize. And my association will be poised to provide a platform and resources for them to do so.

One way or another, a sustainable, community-based entrepreneurship revolution is coming. Sooner or later, we’ll have no choice.

(P.S. lots of twittering going on at #BALLE)

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1 Response to Awaiting the Sustainable Enterprise Revolution

  1. I think you hit on something vital when you talked about the failings of our high schools and colleges in cultivating enrepreneurship. Young people are just itching to contribute meaningfully, but few opportunities exist. Instead these intelligent, capable people are forced to sit in orderly lifeless classrooms and by the time they graduate they’ve been indoctrinated into the dysfunctional corporate system and are ready to dismally take there places at the bottom of the corporate ladder. They’re not able to use their gifts, and especially their exuberance. It just gets knocked right out of them. It seems like, as a society, we really screw up with our 18-25 year olds–we totally fail them. What if the training existed for those young people to hit the ground running when their exuberance is so high–if we enabled them to build natural enterprises at 18, 19 or 20? And they just kept going from there….

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