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The Local Economy Revolution


See the previous section of The Local Economy Revolution, The Real Power of Small Businesses.

In today’s installment, Della reflects on a paradox: small businesses thrive on being independent and in charge of their own future, yet small businesses do best when they’re part of a community network that can provide mutual support.

Small businesses, regardless of industry, need to be able to supplement their limited capacity by being able to reach out for help when they need it.

Small businesses most differ from larger businesses because of the repercussions of their limited capacity (capacity for management, bookkeeping, marketing, anything involving a need for human time). Small businesses, regardless of industry, need to be able to supplement their limited capacity by being able to reach out for help when they need it.

Here’s two simple examples –- one a business, one not (well, not entirely). Let’s take the second one first.

My husband broke his shoulder blade when he wrecked his bicycle on a trail last year. He messed it up pretty good –- fractured in two places and partially out of joint (I told him that the front-double-somersault-over-the-handle-bars dismount was best left to the professionals, but sometimes they don’t listen).

The weeks after that for me, from a work and a home front standpoint, got pretty garbled. I entered a period of Things are Not Getting Done … whether it was that presentation that I have got to get written, or attending my son’s school open house. We just couldn’t keep all the balls in the air with three functional adult arms and one out of two brains trying to fall asleep from the medications all the time.

If we had had family in town that could manage some of the kid logistics, or if this presentation was of a type that I could hand off to someone else, we could have tackled everything, or at least more of it. If we had had a higher level of interdependence, we would have had more access to capacity at the moment when we needed it.

The issue isn’t money, entirely, or time, entirely. It’s capacity, and particularly flexible, available-when-needed capacity. And for about two months, neither the Wise Economy Workshop nor the Rucker household had anywhere near enough of it.

One day during that period, I spent a couple of hours trying to work from a coffee shop a few minutes away (it was patient nap time and I didn’t want to risk waking him). I’ve been there many times, and as far as I can tell, the only person who works there is the owner.

Think about that for a minute. If you are trying to run a coffee shop without employees, what do you do when there is a delivery at the back door?

Illustration by Marc Hughes for PlannersWeb

When do you clean the bathroom (when do you use the bathroom, for that matter)? Perhaps he gets the Subway employees at the end of the block to accept his deliveries when he is busy, or perhaps he pays someone to clean the place or balance his books after he closes. I don’t really know.

Here’s the tough part, though, if you’re in his shoes:

How much of your total personal capacity does the business consume, and how do you deal with those limits? And what happens when that well runs dry?

This, in a nutshell, is the real reason why a healthy small business ecosystem needs to foster interdependence: small businesses need to be able to draw on others to supplement their own capacity, especially in a flexible way that enables them to get that when they need it without carrying an unsustainable and not-always-needed cost on their backs.

That all sounds nice and happy.

But there’s one more piece to that interdependence: in a healthy small business ecosystem, people understand that others’ success or failure will directly impact their own thriving or struggling.

When it flourishes, that awareness that leads to a strengthened sense of responsibility to and for the community. And that’s an ethos that we as a culture often haven’t done much to build up.

Small business owners, understandably, tend to think of themselves as independent — “I built this business, it’s mine, I am king of my castle, don’t you mess with me.”

That’s all fine and good when you work on a 3,000-acre spread, miles from anyone else. For the typical small business, that’s a dangerous stance -– for themselves and for others.

Here’s an easy visual: picture the stereotypical downtown eyesore owned by the 79-year old guy with the pawn shop that hasn’t had its front window washed since Eisenhower was president. Not only is he not doing himself any favors, but he’s probably having a negative impact on the businesses and property owners around him.

Again, that’s an overly easy example, but you can sing the same tune with a lot of different words.

In a healthy small business ecosystem, owners and managers understand that, like it or not, they are to at least some extent interdependent on other businesses in their district or cluster.

The degree and type of interdependence varies depending on the type of business activity, the type of business space, whether or not customers see the location, how spread out they are physically, etc.

But to be optimally successful, a small business cannot pretend that it is an island unto itself.

Cowboys don’t work in storefronts or warehouses or office cubicles -– and small businesses need neighbors who understand that they all are, will you or won’t you, in this together.

In a lot of cases, like my pawn shop owner, our small businesses have forgotten that part. And they need some help remembering.

Building (or re-building) interdependence takes hard work. It takes consistent communication, illuminating those interdependencies, probably pointing them out to some individuals over and over. And it takes the sometimes-unpleasant work of challenging assumptions and changing how people think about the environment in which they operate. It’s work that takes time. It’s work that takes grit. But it’s the right work. It’s building that healthy small business ecosystem.

Editor’s Note: For a look at one way in which businesses can come together, see Beth Humstone’s article, “Turning Downtowns Around: Business Improvement Districts.”

See also Gwendolyn Hallsmith’s “Getting Started on a Local Economic Plan” (and the related articles in her series).

In the next installment of The Local Economy Revolution, Della Rucker takes another look at the analogy between communities and gardens.