In the first post which was posted a looooong time ago, I basically summed up why starting a business doesn’t have to mean that your idol is Gordon Gekko. We always live between two worlds, the way things are and the way that they should be. Our differences tend to be rooted in how we define those two poles, not whether or not we live in between those realities. Everyone compromises.
So, fast forward almost exactly a year later and I’m getting out of the business. There are lots of reasons. I’ve had a third child and don’t see myself quitting my full-time job anytime soon. My own personal life and yard have been neglected, because of all the energy i have put into starting this business. I am also committed to an intentional Christian community which takes a lot of time and energy as well. My life has been out of balance. I’ve also realized some things about my perfectionist personality that have been eye-opening.
So, this seems like a good time to reflect on the topic of starting, running and quitting a business when you have big problems and questions about capitalism in general and our modern version of it in particular. I’m re-reading and blogging through M. Douglas Meeks excellent book God, The Economist which will cover more in depth many of my questions and concerns about the relationship of our economic structures to the kingdom of God.
The Gravity of Capital
As you may already know, the business I started is what is referred to as a socially responsible business. I created some guiding principles and mission to help keep me on track and shape how the business was run as it grew. I’ve read some good books and literature on these kinds of businesses and I think they are definitely part of the solution. I applaud their work and they are demonstrating ways that we could modify our current version of capitalism to make change.
However, when you are trying to start and grow a business there is enormous pressure to conform to the status quo for doing business. In order to stay in business and become successful you have to get paid. If you want to be a good employer or be able to feed your family, you have to have money to do that.
So, I found myself sometimes needing to reiterate and articulate why certain directions which might make more money were not open to me. I also found myself thinking more about money and numbers than I am comfortable with. There are times where my relationship with people, the way I related to them, the way I thought about things and what motivated me sometimes had more to do with how much money I needed to make, how to do things more efficiently, etc. There’s a lot of pressure to cut corners. Trying to be more sustainable, source sustainable or reclaimed materials and pay people well is not very easy.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a luxury and position of privilege to not worry about money. We live in the economy that exists, not the one that we wish existed. Everybody has to pay their bills and use money. Even our attempts to barter and create sharing and solidarity economies can only get us so far as long as the current economic structure prevails. So, I’m not against making money or running business. What disturbed me was the way I sometimes felt about people and the work I was doing. It was sometimes reduced to dollar signs. That’s the nature of the game unfortunately.
Changing the Game
I haven’t quit business and suddenly started living without money, but I am engaged with some projects involving sharing finances and assets in our community. I recently ran across an article from Yes! Magazine that posed the question I am wrestling with. The article gave responses to some typical things people say about why more radical change is impossible.
The best we can hope for is “green” and “ethical” capitalism.
This belief is fundamentally flawed because it assumes that within capitalism, businesses can prioritize anything over the bottom line. But businesses that commit themselves first and foremost to being fully ethical and green will find it difficult to stay in business in the current system. There are great models of ethical business— worker-owned organic farms, for instance—but these cannot become the norm within an economic structure that concentrates wealth and power in the hands of Monsanto. And while we should support these alternatives, we need to recognize that we can’t shop our way to a better world. We’ll only change the structure and scale up existing alternatives through collective political struggle. (from http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/love-and-the-apocalypse/what-to-say-when-they-say-it-s-impossible)
There’s a lot to unpack in that paragraph. This is the tension I struggle with. There are folks trying to create businesses and incentives for businesses to have a triple bottom line (profit, environment and worker rights for example). However, the structures, rules and regulations make it much easier to build and run business that exploit the earth and people without consequence. I think the alternatives people are experimenting with will be a step towards something new, but we shouldn’t be tricked into thinking that we can harness the current economic model for good. There are values and assumptions that force me to relate to others and the earth in ways that make me uncomfortable. (I hope to unpack this more as I blog through Meeks’ book).
So, I might start another business, but next time it will be with friends. I don’t think we should shoulder the burden of living counter-culturally by ourselves. It is too much to bear. I don’t see quitting as a failure, though I am tempted. I continue to live in between and try to figure out how to live out my values in a way that leads me and others closer to the things we hope and dream for. That’s the best any of us can hope for. I hope to have time to throw more parties and celebrate life and the beauty of the relationships I have that cannot be contained or defined by the economics of GDP and profit margins.