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Chapter 7 - page 3

Anyone wishing to join the Briarpatch posts off to their nearest co-ordinator a one-page letter outlining who they are, what their business does and what their three or four main problems are, along with a six-month subscription, the amount of which is entirely up to them, the average being $50. Pritchard or Whitmyer then telephone to make an appointment to call. At the moment there are 150 paid-up members in the Bay area, down from as many as 600 in the early 1980s. Pritchard is not worried by this decline. "There is a tacit assumption that if something is successful it goes on. That's very wrong. The time may come for letting it go."

He points out that when the Briarpatch was launched, the ideas behind it were very radical but now they no longer have the same intensity because the mainstream business community has taken so many of them on board. Whitmyer agrees12: "Before 'quality circles' and 'total quality' there was Briarpatch. Before 'excellence and ethics' there was Briarpatch. Before 'green business' and 'green marketing' there was Briarpatch. The sudden burst of businesses claiming to be socially and environmentally responsible has been enough to make the most trusting among us a bit suspicious."

Pritchard would probably not be in business himself without the Briarpatch. He was teaching at a university in San Francisco when he developed an idea for a business and, since he had no commercial background, joined the network for help and support to set it up. What he learned caused him to abandon the idea - 'it would have been a disaster' - and to start a business helping people to open or run socially-responsible businesses instead. He did this by 'apprenticing' himself to a consultant in the Briarpatch to learn the trade - a typical and common example of Briars sharing. "Eighty per cent of my work is morale-related, helping people who are freaking out or have lost their business nerve" he says. "Often business disasters are caused by personality problems or blind spots. I was involved recently with a clothing business in which the two partners were not speaking to each other and, after three attempts at mediation failed, I helped them structure the divorce. In another case, I found a businessman had not kept any books so I got in a book-keeper to prepare them but a month later he was totally uninterested in what they said. Naturally, the business failed, but at least that man had learned what he did not want to do and moved on, so it wasn't necessarily a disaster."

Most Briar businesses are small - 58% are single-person and 85% have less than seven employees - and most of their owners want to keep them that way. For example, Pritchard himself decided not to employ anyone in his consultancy because his perfectionism made him bad at delegating. Michael Phillips, who discusses right livelihood in his important book The Seven Laws of Money13 and who played a key role in setting the network up tells14 the story of a graphic designer-Briar, George DeWoody, who began turning away work when he had five employees because he wanted to continue to design himself and not supervise other designers. Other businesses in the network including a toy distributor and the Down Depot, which cleans feather-filled clothing and duvets, have turned down opportunities to open franchised outlets and yet have helped other people to open similar entirely independent operations. "The scale issue is crucial" Pritchard says. "The trouble is that the role models put about outside the network are all about high-flying entrepreneurs."

Although the Briarpatch, like many of its members, does not advertise since its structure and resources prevent it handling enquiries, a number of articles have been written about it over the years and similar networks have been set up elsewhere in the US and in New Zealand and Sweden. Another story Michael Phillips tells is of a Swedish Briar, Sven Olmstead, and his experience with open accounts books:

"Sven builds homes, offices and factories for a fixed contract price and lets his customers see his financial statements. Sven explains the results: 'When clients see that I have lost money on a project, the client is very appreciative of the hard work and excess effort my company made to do a good job for them; these clients always come back to me for the next job. When I make a large profit it is visible and the clients also come back, insisting that I offer them low bids - after all, I 'made lots of money on the last job I did for them.'"

An attempt to start a British Briarpatch was made at the end of the 1970s in that hotbed of economic experimentation, Totnes in Devon, but it failed to take off apparently because the number of potential member-businesses was too small. The consensus seems to be that a minimum of twenty members is needed to start a network and seventy to keep it running. The Business Network, which was set up in London by Edward Posey and Frances Kinsman in 1982 and ran for eleven years did not set out to be a Briarpatch. Its purpose was to link 'people interested in transforming business so that it embodies a vision of the wholeness of life and for the human spirit' its brochure explained. 'It aims to foster a new holistic approach to business which reflects the interdependence of the individual, business, the community and the environment.' It did not, however, offer a consultancy service nor endeavour to help members solve their business problems. Indeed, it was not set up for small businesses at all and members were not drawn geographically from any one place. "Our aim was to get mainstream business people to think of the spiritual dimension, of different ways of dealing with business" Kinsman says15. What killed it eventually was that New Agers who wished to get into business ('The sweaters' as Kinsman calls them) came to outnumber the suits. He decided to let it die when two merchant bankers who had been dragged somewhat unwillingly to a meeting by their wives or girlfriends were forced to participate in a circle dance, which both they and Kinsman found extremely embarrassing.

At present, outside the Briarpatch at least, very few people who run a small business are happy and fulfilled. Indeed, most would admit they are serving a monster which allows them no part of the day as their own and which so dominates their thoughts that they cannot maintain other interests. Any time they take out from their work is ruined by worries about tasks they should be tackling. Problems accompany them to bed at night and are there when they wake in the morning. They become boring to be with and bored with themselves. I know, because I was such a person.

Above all, the proprietor of a small business is alone. This is because he or she is unlikely to have anyone prepared to listen to them talk about the problems, opportunities and the humdrum day-to-day activities of the company in sufficient detail and at adequate length to be able to give the owner both the chance to develop their thoughts by talking things through and the informed yet dispassionate and objective outside view they require. Too often, for lack of anyone else, the owner's husband or wife is forced to attempt to fulfil this function. This is generally a mistake, particularly when the family's income is threatened by the business's problems, for the home immediately ceases to be a refuge from the stresses of the commercial world.

"A one-man show is an indicator for disaster" an official of the Irish Industrial Development Authority once told me. He was right. Few people have all the skills, knowledge and personal characteristics required to start up and manage a successful enterprise. Someone who is a first-rate sales person gets excitement from winning orders, just as an angler does from catching fish. Sales people are quite happy to spend hours trying to tempt a big customer to take their bait but once the order has been won, they lose interest almost completely. The routine grind of assembling the goods, packing, invoicing, despatching and finally chasing payment is not for them, although, rationally, they know that it is every bit as essential as getting the contract in the first place. They'll probably screw up enough motivation to do it if they have to but when it comes to keeping records for irksome things like VAT, they can always think of something more important to do - like ringing so-and-so to see if he needs more supplies yet - and the job will never get done.

Similarly, anyone with a clerical or accountancy background might get great pleasure from keeping tabs on the stock and cash side of things but is unlikely to be an enthusiastic wheeler-dealer as well. And people who derive enormous satisfaction from making or designing things will normally find it hard to buckle down to either selling or keeping the books. A mix of distinct personality traits which is rarely, if ever, found in the same person is needed to run a business successfully. Thus a sales business needs at least two people - one to sell and one to look after the organisational side. A manufacturing business has to have a minimum of three: one each for production, sales and administration.

True, a business can employ people with the traits the proprietor lacks but employees create almost as many problems as they solve because the operation has to trade on a larger scale to develop the extra turnover the increased wages bill demands. There are other drawbacks to employing people too and Claude Whitmyer recently wrote a book Running a One-Person Business16 together with Michael Phillips and Salli Rasberry, a Briarpatch volunteer consultant, which includes a two-page table entitled 'Ten Reasons not to Hire an Employee'. "The responsibility of regularly paying someone else to work for you can become a horrible burden....gone are the days when you could use slow business periods to relax, take vacations or learn new have to give up your own pace for the employee's pace.... [and] schedule your work in a more normal way" are some of the phrases they use. But even if the business could support an employee or two, the difference in status between worker and boss means that the latter would find it hard to go to the former for advice. So, without a Briarpatch, all a sole proprietor can do is to employ a consultant, assuming they know of one with affordable fees and the right attitude, or find a partner with a complementary set of abilities, a difficult task and a minefield in itself.

What I am arguing here is that almost every business is, by its nature, a collective enterprise but the present system makes it very difficult to organise one as such and in small firms a single person usually has to take all the risk and accept all the responsibility for whatever happens despite being inevitably ill-equipped to do so. Naturally, the strain causes many proprietors to crumble under the load and, in general, only the ill-informed, the desperate and the greedy want to run businesses on their own. Indeed, given the pressures they impose and the miserable lifestyle they provide, the only rational reason for anyone to want their own business these days is to become rich as soon as possible and take early retirement. We recognise this motive when we speak of a self-employed person being 'in business for himself' - we do not see any public service element being present in commercial life nor, as we have noted, does a hyper-competitive system permit there to be. But Roger Pritchard thinks that many people who go into business to become rich are unsuited to it. "We have found that people who go into business to make money are impatient, act badly and alienate people" he says. "They don't have the patience and persistence to make a business work."

Forcing those who get involved in small business to accept all the pain and take all the gain is obviously bad for both them and society. In the community economy, business must be a means of service which allows those who take it up to gain respect for what they do rather than being despised for being engaged in an entirely self-seeking activity as at present. In such circumstances, a different type of person would enter commercial life, someone who would gladly give up the owner's claim to 100% of a business's profits if they did not have to carry 100% of its burdens and risk losing, through personal guarantees, 100% of their homes. Why is there such a huge difference between the way we treat, say, a gymkhana society which covers its deficit with a dinner-dance and whose organisers feel free to ring up anyone and ask them to help out and, say, a local baker and confectioner who has to make a profit and who finds there is no-one to help when he runs into trouble? The answer, of course, lies in the ownership and not the relative importance or pleasure-potential of the two activities. The horse show is a community activity whereas the baker is seen as simply trying to make a profit for himself.

If we are concerned about increasing the range of economic activities in our communities we will therefore have to devise a new type of communally-owned commercial organisation which will have some of the features of a craft guild, some of the Briarpatch and some of an investment trust. Its main objective will be to serve the people of the area in which it is located rather than to make profits for owners or investors. As a result, it will be free to seek donations to balance its books and call for volunteers to help and advise its paid staff. Public-service radio stations in the United States are run on approximately these lines, broadcasting worthwhile programmes, taking a limited amount of advertising and covering their losses in an appeals week once a year. Mondragon as it was in its early years is another good model because it had a mechanism for limiting the wages paid in enterprises in its system and redistributing the resulting profits, thus balancing the interests of the individual shareholder-workers against those of the community as a whole. It also had a mechanism by which a group wishing to set up a collective business could be part-financed and advised on how to do so by people who had helped many other businesses establish themselves before. Although Mondragon has been forced to change recently, it still has a lot to teach.

Indeed, one American company, Thermo Electron, a diversified technology company which makes everything from alternative energy systems to artificial hearts in Waltham, Massachusetts, seems to have either re-invented or copied part of the Mondragon model with great success to make profits for itself rather than to benefit a community. The company has launched several, small high-tech businesses by combining "the advantages of a large company with those of a start-up" according to its president, George Hatsopoulos17. Innovators working within the company are given a small stake in their project, loans from the parent company and all the technical and administrative support they need to get them past the point at which most start-ups fail. Then when a project has proved itself, it is converted into an independent firm able to raise capital by selling shares although Thermo Electron always keeps a majority stake. Between 1985 and 1994, it launched ten companies and plans to spin-off another fourteen by the year 2000. Although 85% of US start-ups collapse "we won't let [ours] fail" Hatsopoulos says.

But perhaps the best current example of an organisation close to the Mondragon model is Radical Routes Ltd., a co-operative of co-operatives with offices in Manchester and Birmingham which accepts loans from ethical investors under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act to re-lend to its twenty members. As well as finance, Radical Routes provides business advice and technical and personal support to members of its member-co-ops which include Organic Roundabout, which each week in 1995 was supplying over a thousand families in the West Midlands with a box of organic vegetables. As a result, it has not so far had a bad debt. However, it is making interest-bearing loans rather than providing equity and it is national rather than regional in scope - its members are as far apart as Leeds, Wales and Cornwall.

Perhaps what is needed is a community co-op in which every family in an area could hold shares. This would enter into partnerships with individuals and groups wishing to start businesses in its territory, conduct feasibility studies, help develop business plans, provide equity capital, and carry out those aspects of the businesses' administration in which the principals were weak. Most importantly, these co-ops would support and advise those running the businesses in which they were involved and link them with the other activities they were helping.

If local markets are going to meet a diversity of needs they will have to have a diversity of small producers and community co-ops are consequently going to have to become involved in a lot of small-scale projects, many of which will be home-based. Building an alternative to the industrial system does not mean duplicating it in terms of its scale, technology or location. In Divisions of Labour18, his study of life and work on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, R.E. Pahl points out that in pre-industrial times 'work was carried out by households and was a combination of self-provisioning subsistence, wage labour and by-employment'. "Regular, full-time employment at a single job was exceptional in the 18th Century" he adds. A mixture of activities was the norm then and it is likely to become so again in a post industrial period. Most people will do many more things for themselves and their families, for which of course they will not be paid, supplemented by work for their neighbours - either directly or through a community co-op company - for which they will be paid mainly in a local currency, and for industrial-system employers, for which they will be paid in national or international notes such as the Euro. Even some of the work for mainstream employers will be done at home or in workshops close by.

This will affect housing demand profoundly. Most urban accommodation has been built or converted on the assumption that people want to do little more than eat, sleep and watch TV at home. It rarely provides room for a pram, let alone a bicycle, and many properties will prove entirely unsuited to the new working patterns. In the country, of course, more space is available and it is significant that Jim Connolly whose work helping unemployed people move from cities to the countryside is described in the panel sees access to a garden and a workshed being among the major gains for those who move out of town.

Throwing Rural Depopulation into Reverse (click for panel from original book)

Page 4 of Chapter 7

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