I get to do some workshops, see old friends, sell books for Community Bookstore, help pull off a benefit auction for FIC (we made over $1300!), and have innumerable conversations with people seeking more community in their life. It's a lot of fun.
The best part (so far) has been pioneering a new workshop on Community Business. For the last few years I've been collaborating with my friend, Terry O'Keefe (Asheville NC), to figure out ways to help intentional communities have more robust economic activity, and we wanted to test the waters for interest in that focus.
Although our late afternoon Saturday workshop was not advertised in the conference program (we announced it for the first and only time at the opening circle Saturday morning), we drew about 20 folks and had a lively conversation throughout. It turned out that Terry and I were not the only ones with attention on economic sustainability. Hurray!
While it's too early to tell if that workshop interest can be translated into a business model (consulting with cooperative groups about how to be more business savvy), but it was an encouraging sign.
Here's are some of the questions that attendees were interested in:
o When does it make more sense for the community to own a business, and when does it make more sense for individual members to own it?
It depends on whether it's an income-sharing community or not, what structure gives you the best chance of manifesting the management energy needed to operate the business, and how much you want the business to generate jobs for members.
o What advantages might communities have in the marketplace?
—Often communities develop expertise in an area to meet their own needs, and that learning can have immediate commercial application (in ways that home-scale experiences often don't).
—Community members member tend to have above-average social skills (think customer service) and are happy to work part-time if they can work at home with flexible hours.
—Communities often control land or have commonly held buildings that are underutilized.
o How tricky is it to navigate the dynamic where members are both peer-peer and employer-employee?
The hardest part may be when the employer gives the employee critical feedback about their performance as an employee—and these two are otherwise neighbors. This can be dicey, and a lot will depend on how well the culture of the community supports the expression of feedback.
o How can we encourage non-income-sharing communities to develop their potential as an economic engine?
There are at least two parts to this: a) what can communities do to foster and support business development among entrepreneurial members; and b) what can groups do to help new businesses create jobs for non-entrepreneurial members?
o To what extent is a focus on business development just buying into the (failed) paradigm of growth solves everything, and to what extent is it possible to use traditional business tools to support alternative economies?
While I think you can dial down demand (and live happily on less), it nonetheless makes sense to be smart about analyzing prospects for new business ideas with tried and true traditional queries (what's the market for your product or service?; what's the competition?; what do you do better than anyone else?; what do you love doing?; can you produce or deliver this product or service at a price people are willing to pay?; how is your business an expression of who you want to be in the world?)
o How do handle the tension between the non-entrepreneurial (who tend to be risk averse) and the entrepreneurial (who tend to be risk tolerant)?
You had this tension already, whether you have community businesses or not. This is just another application of it. It's a better strategy to learn to deal with the breadth of attitudes among your members than attempt to eliminate opportunities for those differences to manifest.
• • •Now all Terry and I have to do is sift through all the dialog and figure out how to offer services that help groups navigate this gauntlet of economic challenges. While I don't yet know what that looks like, I'm looking forward to it (which is a typical entrepreneurial response).