The jobs reports this quarter: they haven't been positive. The healthcare snafus and the government shutdown: they make the Dow quiver and business owners wait on the edges of their seats to make a move, to decide to expand or order inventory, or whether to hire new people. It might seem to the casual headline-scanner that this country has little hope for near-future recovery. However, I'm here to report on a project that inspires and trends that shine like a little match near a stream of methane coming from this dump of an economy.
In May of 2012, in my post Moondoggie-style Economic Development, I wrote about the Five Points Collaborative in East Nashville, a cluster of small shops with short lease terms, and a similar project that was about to open called The Shoppes at Fatherland. The idea behind these projects is to promote small businesses and entrepreneurship without adding the heavy burden of expensive long-term leases to the business plan. I loved the idea and thought some activist investors could make good use of it.
To my delight, a couple weeks ago, my sister sent me an article from GOOD.is about an invention called the miLES Storefront Transformer. It is a fold-able kit complete with walls, shelving, lighting, and some furnishings to fill vacant storefronts in Manhattan. The article is worth reading. The Made In the Lower East Side Storefront Transformer ran a Kickstarter campaign that was just successfully funded as of their close date, October 19, to "transform an underused storefront this winter into a pop-up neighborhood hub with 7 themes." They want to use these pop-ups to exhibit the magnificent versatility of the transportable cubes to fill underused storefronts with pop-up shops, incubators, art galleries, classrooms, and anything else one's imagination might come up with to invigorate a neighborhood. Having just worked in an office building that had a concrete retail shell space that sat vacant the entire two-and-a-half years I worked in the building, it filled me with joy to see people working to collaborate on so many levels to keep a neighborhood from appearing to be an abandoned hole, to allow start-ups to experiment in a short-term space, to allow temporary classes and workshops to imbue energy into a community. These are the things that the miLES Storefront Transformers could accomplish.
I am learning myself just how complicated starting a business can be for the uninitiated. A friend and I are collaborating on an idea for some consulting work--photography and copy writing for a specific audience for the web--that seemed inexpensive to start, enjoyable to do while utilizing our talents, a way to make some extra money, and an idea that appears to reach a market in need. We don't even need a storefront, just a web site, but I am learning that there is more to starting a for profit business than a nonprofit organization. It seemed at first like choosing to organize as an LLC would be the obvious best choice, but then again, maybe not; maybe we should do some freelance work first. The insurance recommendations from the Tennessee Secretary of State have me overwhelmed. The parts I'm not afraid to do--cold calling, running the web site, doing the work--don't make much sense without some structure. As I mentioned in my more recent post, Free Help For the Weary Money-Makers, the government does have a plethora of help out there. I've started our business plan on the Small Business Administration web site, watched some helpful tax videos on the IRS site, "Small Business Taxes: The Virtual Workshop," and have begun looking at sites like the Tennessee Small Business Development Center and the Business Enterprise Resource Office for additional information.
In fact, there is so much free information out there, it's almost too much information. I currently have more time on my hands than a lot of people when I'm not busy looking for a day job, have an above-average tolerance for reading through boring text, love learning about business and technology and new things in general, am more organized with internet references than most people I know, and still can't wrap my brain around all of it. (Is it obvious from my self-boosting description that I've been selling myself to employers for a few weeks?) My father would probably remind me that I don't need to know everything to get started, and my sister would remind me that I am getting bogged down in the details, so that's where I differ from business owners who just wing it. It seems that keeping on top of all of this information, though, is important for someone like me who advocates for expanded business education to expand economic empowerment. It also seems that the complexity of the process could deflate the confidence of someone who doesn't have the internet and a computer in their home, someone who has a full time job and/or children to look after, someone who reads slowly and maybe doesn't have the reading comprehension skills of a college graduate. Many people probably could run a business if only they had the right training and mentoring. Perhaps, though, the system works for those who have the diligence to persevere when things are difficult and find help when needed. I'm not entirely settled on that matter, but that's not the point here. The resources have been created--from education to storefronts--by engaged activists everywhere who want to ensure that those with the drive and a product have what they need to succeed in business.
It seems like a grand time in history to be entrepreneurial. Businesses can be run with less money and better technology, run by people with basic educations and people who still work another job. Resources for small businesses have been sprouting in the last decade on a fertile landscape of economic depression crap--the manure of broken retirement and home ownership dreams, the heat of anger over poorly run businesses and institutions that left people unemployed for months on end, the nourishment of those who have energy remaining after navigating the HR maze of the job hunt. People are returning to an appreciation of self-sufficiency: the Etsy Entreprenuer, the small-scale farmer, the urban homesteader, the Pinterest project pursuers, the vintage resellers, and the many wonderful brands of people who may hit a big box store for a lot of items, but who know what it means to make something for themselves. Cities and building owners are becoming more creative in their zoning and project use. Rethinking how we get around cities has reminded people of the value of the ground floor storefront in a walkable neighborhood as a community-binding fixture. Larger companies are gathering their employees in open-concept floor plans to collaborate and communicate with each other face-to-face just as society begins to be concerned with people having their faces stuck in screens.
OK, the effectiveness of that last phenomenon is actually an unproven, possibly even counter-productive method that might not actually be getting people's faces out of their screens. Nevertheless, this country wants to support enterprise and collaboration, never mind that boring old b-word. Perhaps if we continue to share the love and collaborate globally, support technologies like the indoor aquaponics food garden called The Aqualibrium Garden--another amazing project worth reading about--there might be a better world in the nearer future than any doomsday prep-er would be willing to admit.
Now we have to figure out what to do with that damned government.