James C. Shultz's recent blog post 'Why I'm not on the Occupy band ... and the comments to it got me thinking. The blogger writes, in the comments, "Going into business for yourself is the Quaker way. " A number of the other commenters have argued that is not possible. I know my thinking about this has been influenced by the book 'Beyond Civilization' by Daniel Quinn, which I would say is worth reading for someone who is thinking about whether they could build a business. I think it is possible, and I'll write a little about how.

What's more important to me is I think we shouldn't be too quick to put limits on what is possible with God's help. There's a powerful teaching in the resurrection of Jesus and the flowering of church at Pentecost following it, a part which is set out in Jesus's teaching in Jerusalem in John's gospel in Ch 12. Our brains seem to be set up so we have to give space to the dead end, to grief, and let go of our own opinions about the way forward, before any way forward can open for us - we are asked at times to continue to be faithful in the darkness, to continue seeking God's way despite everything. For me, Quaker worship includes practicing that 'letting go' of my own ideas; dropping down into the well of God's radiant, healing compassion, and sitting there, letting myself be changed by immersion.

One of the disciplines of our Quaker way is in staying close to the guide, staying right by the wellspring of Life, and encouraging and supporting each other in listening for the answer there instead of reading from the scripts we have been programmed with, whether by our family, our culture, our previous experiences or whatever. There's a subtlety in allowing ourselves to dream, to entertain our longing to take our place in the beloved community, and at the same time letting go of our human effort in making it happen. What we see as the realities of our lives might change, or what is possible within those limits might change, but change happens. God's way grows in us as we stay in it, and the waters of God's grace pour out without stopping.

For me, this is grace - we are invited out of the jaws of the trap, not because we are good or special but because God is good and we are willing to try to tolerate the discomfort of receiving God's gift, and be shown the way we should go. The beloved community comes to us as a gift, and what is required is that we are willing to be shown the way in our own lives, beginning where we are. I know that way may include many miles of wilderness and desert, yet still there is something that can draw a person onwards and give strength for the day. There might not be space for a cow in a city residence but perhaps someone in Meeting has garden space for a dwarf dairy goat you could care for.

I'm not claiming to have success in worldly terms, but I have some observations to offer. I live in a city, but we have a back garden, about 6 m by 15 m. We got some hens when the local egg farm culled their flock. We adapted a playhouse into a hen coop, and built a fence out of scavenged timber and wire to section off a yard for them. Our 6 hens lay well, and have become much happier than they were when we arrived. I have to supply feed and water and grit and bedding, and the hens are very happy to help eat up many of the non-poisonous weeds from the rest of the garden and other gardens where I help out; they also love to eat slugs and snails. The hen's manure contributes to a good compost pile for eventually feeding the garden. The eggs have supplied the needs of three households through the winter with a few spare for other friends, and now the days are lengthening here we have even more spare eggs to share with others. It's not a business in any conventional sense but I see it as part of a life which takes a tiny part in the solution to industrialization - I think it's possible that almost everyone can find something like it from the resources each of us has available. Salad or herbs in pots or window boxes? Mushrooms in the airing cupboard? Fruit or nut trees planted somewhere you walk past on your way to work or Meeting?

Another link could be from studying artisan production at the smallest possible scale, where  similarly we might be able to afford the startup costs. I've recently been studying soap-making, and made some bar soap using vegetable oil that could grow locally. It takes study and planning and there are hazards to be assessed, but all of these things can be learned, perhaps you know a science graduate or engineer who would be willing to work with you through the learning process. The overheads of soapmaking are fairly low - I bought a notebook to record my soapmaking activities, recipes and costs and I think I have spent around £15 so far, including the hardware stuff like safety goggles and protective gloves, and I have enough materials to make five more complete batches; consumables total approx 50 p cost per bar for artisan organic soap bars.

If it was a priority, perhaps each church/Quaker meeting could find someone who could make soap for all the households.  Again it's not a whole solution but again it is a step - everyone needs soap, most teenagers could learn the skill and have a sideline to take with them if they get a chance to move away. Someone who develops the skills could start selling at a market, perhaps with extra hurdles depending on local regulations. So could basket-makers, cabinet-makers, drapers and seamstresses and cobblers. Don't look at renting a business property or printing stationery at all, look at how much could be done from what you already have available. It's not necessarily easy, I don't think anyone said that developing a business was - and we have the possibility of supporting each other in seeking and following God's way.

One of the really beautiful things I see in this is that if people who are relatively privileged, skilled, and comfortable can break the trail, abundance arises for those who have less. A lot of people feel they "have to" buy the supermarket laundry detergent brand which is on offer because it's the cheapest - but if there was a neighbourhood business making laundry detergent which is environmentally sound and which is cheaper than the industrial one, even poor people would have a choice. That's what convinces me - good news for poor folks. God makes springs in the desert: our faithfulness in listening is required.

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Comment by James C Schultz on 4th mo. 14, 2012 at 5:24pm

When I wrote that going into business for yourself is the Quaker way I was thinking of early Quakers who were forced into doing so because they were not allowed to enter the universities of their day because of their beliefs.  However, I can tell you from personal experience that nothing will bring you closer to God than operating a business with Him as your partner.  Seeking His guidance and wisdom for your business decisions; praying for clients when the cupboard is bare; and even asking Him to slow things down a little so you can catch up all serve to bring a special awareness of just how much he is concerned with you - how much more you mean to him than the Lillies of the field.  Looking back on 34 years of practicing law with Him as my partner I can truly say He has always bailed me out of or brought me through the stormiest of times.  He has given me great clients and has met my needs on a daily basis, much like the Isrealites with their Manna.  It's not a life for the faint of heart but it's a great life for the seeker who wants to draw closer to God for it lends a fervency to your prayer life and your relationship with God.

Comment by Alice M Yaxley on 4th mo. 15, 2012 at 4:39am

That's amusing, I read it as if you had a strong conviction that it was the right thing for Quakers to do. I'd not have said that myself, but it got me thinking because it fit in well with what I have been thinking about what is needed at this time in our country and possibly in the USA as well, if those of you who live there agree.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 4th mo. 15, 2012 at 10:59am

Should be done worldwide, I would agree. But these are treacherous times for starting businesses in the real economy, because it is so strongly dominated by the economy of fraud and wealth-extraction.

I would not advise anyone-- unless responding to a strong leading-- to start a business under present conditions. (I've started businesses when this was workable, and tried to start a business when it wasn't. One is a blessing; the other is a gift to landlords and banksters.) If anyone wanted to start a project entirely as a service, with no expectation of breaking even financially, that's certainly doable-- though one should also keep in mind: how badly charitable institutions with endowments fare whenever investment markets collapse. (AFSC being one well-known example of a good cause that had to end essential programs the last time this happened.)

Comment by James C Schultz on 4th mo. 15, 2012 at 10:57pm

I tried to get out of being a lawyer many times.  Once it lasted for a few years.  Each time God made it clear he wanted me to go back to it.  I even have an engineering degree and a PE license to go with it but all attempts failed.  The only thing God blessed was my law practice and by blessing I don't mean financially so much as results.  As mentioned earlier in another place I wouldn't recommend it to anyone and I know many Christian attorneys who leave the profession because of their perception of the  lack of ethics amongst their fellow attorneys in certain areas of practice in the US.  But if God is for you who can be aganst you?  It's just wearing to see what is supposed to be a noble profession deteriorate into a cut throat business.

Comment by Alice M Yaxley on 4th mo. 17, 2012 at 1:45am

Forrest Curo - I have a different perspective. Business not "entirely as a service, with no expectation of breaking even financially", and neither dependent on charitable donations. Our egg production costs less than we used to spend on eggs - we spend approximately £2 a week and get eggs costing about 6 p each.

Instead, businesses extending out from a humble home life. Soap, hens, fibre crafts, and similar micorenterprises, taken on with no financial risks, no renting of property, no involvement of banks. I think it is precisely in times of financial recession that we need to do these things for our homes and families, because working together to secure our basic needs is important, and the conventional economic system does not have the ability to deliver the things we need.

I am suggesting micro-businesses with a good eye both for what works financially (little or no financial overheads, mainenance costs at least equal to, preferably cheaper than current habits) and what works for social justice. Perhaps using the word "business" confuses. I know most people have to have someone in their household who brings cash in to pay the costs of living in the monetary economy: taxes, bills and so on. I'm looking at the other side - if there is someone with spare time they can do something which benefits not only themselves but also neighbours and friends.

However it has been a bit lumpy writing about this stuff - maybe it is not yet ripe, or there is something important I don't yet understand about it.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 4th mo. 17, 2012 at 11:51am

I like that perspective... Anne & I used to think that a 'private enterprise' system might actually work if there were a fierce and terrible government imposing a tight size limit, keeping all businesses small enough to drown in a bathtub (a phrase I read somewhere in some other context.)

So, you just don't try to expand until that could be done safely. Maybe affiliate: have someone who takes up the slack if your hens occasionally aren't putting out.

A lot of US cities have zoning laws against such prole behavior as keeping chickens in your back yard. If neighbors don't complain it might not become an issue, but there'd be that worry.

Fishpond, tilapia, garden? One family with fish, another with veggies? Feed fish poop to plants, plants to fish? Doesn't cover living costs without some other source of income, but if that's largely taken care of some other way... Retired people could do this, until the pension funds collapse-- after which the rent collectors might not be coming around much.

Your problem getting more specific, I think, is that we can't specify everyone's situation or everybody's best response, beyond 'keep aware of possibilities' and 'follow your leading.'

Comment by Mackenzie on 4th mo. 17, 2012 at 12:16pm

I actually do have a "business" for fibre crafts (on Etsy), and I can tell you that is NOT a market to go into as your only income. I get a little money on the side every few months--most of it actually comes from calligraphy, not the fibre stuff.  Most people are not willing to pay even materials costs for finished items, because they are so accustomed to items produced in sweatshops from materials that were bought at such high bulk amounts as to be negligible. 

Consider: a scarf crocheted from very thick yarn made of acrylic (ie, petroleum) may take only an hour to do, but the yarn alone is $15, and that's cheap yarn. The same done from wool (renewable, biodegradeable) of that thickness may be $30 of materials costs. What if it's knitted? Make that 2 hours, a bit less yarn, but probably not enough less to knock a skein off, so really it's just a bit more odds-n-ends yarn left over. And if the yarn used is a more usual weight, about DK or Worsted (a medium yarn)? Double the time requirements, at least. But how much is the average person willing *and able* to pay for a scarf? In this economy? 

Assuming $10/hr (just over minimum wage in the US, which given we're talking about a skilled profession is pitiful*) here are some price estimates:

- Thick acrylic yarn, crocheted: $25

- Thick acrylic yarn, knitted: $35

- Thick wool yarn, crocheted: $40

- Thick wool yarn, knitted: $50

- Medium acrylic yarn, crocheted: $30-40

- Medium acrylic yarn, knitted: $40-50

- Medium wool yarn, crocheted: $50

- Medium wool yarn, knitted: $60

Most people will not pay that though, because most people see no value in fibre crafts**. Looking at the prices on my Etsy shop, I've certainly underpriced some items, covering only my time and not the materials. I see a lot of people far underpricing their items... $10 for a shawl? Maybe if you buy the absolute cheapest plastic yarn on the market, that would cover the materials, but certainly no pay for the knitter (8+ hours). My only guess is they're using a yarn stash they inherited when grandma died. The shawls I list are around $150 if large enough to wrap around oneself (I actually did sell one, to a friend who knows enough other fibre people to understand the time requirements).

* For reference: $10/hr, if you assume a typical 40 hour workweek, comes out to $20K/yr, before taxes, more like $16K after. A studio (ie, no bedroom) apartment where I live, if you don't mind cockroaches, and having not adjusted at all for the raises to the rent since 2008, would be over $14K/yr, so you could just scrape by, assuming you sold *everything* and did so very regularly, and that's not counting time spent on photographing, listing items online, packaging for shipping... all the rest of running a business.

** I have a friend who, when told "oh I could never do that" regarding knitting, pressed people about it--what part of pulling a loop of yarn through another loop using a stick sounded hard to them? Turned out they meant "I could never waste my time that way."  There are also, of course, all those stories of people saying "why that's a lovely hat! You should go into business, I mean, I'd pay $25 for that!" about a silk garment for which the materials cost $70.

To the state of my business:

When I sold that shawl for $150, $75 of it went to paying for the booth at the craft fair. $75 is cheap for a craft fair booth. They tend to run more like $100-300. $30 more of it went to the yarn. I'm sure I've spent far more on yarn than I've made back on fibre products, because I've only made a few sales of fibre items in my year and a half of business. The calligraphy part of the business has certainly paid for itself. Just one marriage certificate can make up for a lot of yarn inventory sitting around.

Basically, it's a very good thing that I've got a day job.

Comment by Alice M Yaxley on 4th mo. 17, 2012 at 1:03pm

James C. Shultz: it is great to hear about what you have to say about being in business with God. You want to write more about that? I would like to hear it.

Forrest Curo: Ok glad we have got a similar picture now. I agree! Especially about the difficulties of specifics. Actually I agree about a strong leading as in your first comment too. But sometimes do you think we have to be willing to change how we see things, and how we think so we can hear differently? I know I have had that experience, where someone tells me how they see things in a really different way to how I had been thinking, and then I can hear something different calling me because of that. Though I am like some kind of zigzagging thing, sure I am off course 99 % of the time but I hope I am willing to change and I am trying to follow my guide and I think I am making progress in that direction.

Mackenzie: I am going to list a few things I would be inclined to immediately change, to shift from the way you are doing business to the kind of thing I am talking about. I mean, no prob with what you are doing if that works for you, but I want to point up one or two differences:

1) Find a way to do fibre craft with approaching zero material cost - this is the elimination of financial risk I am talking about. Don't borrow or sink any more money into your enterprise unless it is fully healthy. Get folks from your church/Meeting to donate worn out sweaters, if you knit, and unravel? Get a fleece and spin it yourself on a spindle (A bit of dowel and a lump of plasticine will do for a spindle, if no-one you know can give you one)? I don't know about what the wool market is like there but here it is so depressed I have been given fleeces by sheepowners when I have helped them out, as they can barely sell them. I am sure you can work out the route which is going to work for you, if you can see what I am talking about.

2) Don't spend any money at all on renting space or publicizing, whether that is a market stall or a website costs or anything. All that stuff like Forrest Curo says, I also see that as financial risks which are more suitable for times with a healthy economy, and we don't live there any more. Trade person to person, face to face, with other folks who are in need, or who have realized that we are trying to get out of the other end of the industrial economy. I know not everyone gets it. Look out for the people who do and build up the community with them, trade skills, bread for socks or cabbages for mittens and hats for their kids. Make sure you can make the stuff that meets needs - warm socks are one of the commonest things that homeless folks I know are in need of in the colder seasons. I think every time you are trading with folks who don't get it, in a way you are throwing the energy out of the community circle - you could instead be trading with local people who can reciprocate in more meaningful ways. I mean, you have to follow your guide. Maybe those people are occasionally willing to pay a good amount and you may be sowing seeds for change in the lives of others who don't get it now but might reconsider next year. But I am talking about a different model for day to day trading. I don't know whether it will make any sense to you.

3) Reduce your living costs much more. Find folks you can share with, a room in a house with shared bath and kitchen or whatever, and get rid of the overheads of an apartment to yourself, as well as maybe sharing other living costs? Could you live with some elderly folks from Meeting who need care? Don't try to meet the costs of a living situation wholly on your own, look  towards pooling resources with your good friends and family so everyone benefits, so everyone gets food and water and warmth - that's some of what I read out of "consider the lilies" - once we are working with others within a shared understanding of the blessed community, everyone's needs can get met as a matter of course, and when they are not getting met it is a shared problem, not just you trying to solve it.

Comment by Mackenzie on 4th mo. 17, 2012 at 2:25pm

1) Do you know how long spinning takes? I actually do sell handspun yarn too. On a drop spindle, it'd take me two days to spin the yarn (assuming 2ply worsted weight) for one scarf. With my new spinning wheel (quite the investment!), it'd be more like 4 hours. Passing along those labor costs to a buyer would be far more expensive for them than me just buying milled yarn, even assuming free wool, which is not a safe assumption here. I think it's about $10/fleece, assuming the buyer is doing the skirting, scouring, and washing of the fleece, which is another several hours of work. If you want wool that's already had the feces removed and the lanolin washed off, then I can get good deals at the largest sheep & wool festival in the country (only about 45 minutes from where I live, with people coming from all over North America and sometimes abroad to shop) of about $2/oz next month. The hand-dyed wool roving at yarn shops is $4/oz. Alpaca takes less work to prepare for spinning but is considered a luxury fibre.

Unraveling an old sweater from a charity shop is the only way I know of to make yarn cheap in both time & money.

2) Sometimes I think I ought to just close up shop and give away the stuff I've made. The thing that stops me is that I have a lot of debt to pay off. So if the hobby brings in a little money now and then, that gives me some room around the aggressive payoff schedule I've set for myself (I intend to pay off 15-year loans in 5, but this means at the end of every month I put what's left in my account into the loans).

3) I was quoting the price of a cheap apartment I lived in when I was a student along with one other intentional roommate and several more unintentional (the roaches) to give you an idea of the living costs in this part of the US. A room with a toilet, stove, and roaches was $1260 4 years ago. It's probably $1500 by now. I know they were raising the rent to $1320 when I moved out. For two people to share a two-bedroom apartment is about $1000/person/month (thats about 620 quid). I don't find it likely you'd come across two adults sharing a bedroom (and therefore more people than bedrooms to split costs more) unless they were romantic partners.

My personal living situation is fine for me, as I do have my day job, and it's in a field that I doubt will go out of style soon (software development). I'd need to move to the middle of nowhere (and give up my rural-averse partner!) to be able to afford to live off of knitting. I was, however, trying to make the point that garment work is extremely undervalued relative to the cost of living in the US, because most of the people doing garment work in the world aren't get paid US rates and aren't living in US-priced areas.

By the way, about your chickens: is the  HMRC as ridiculous as the IRS? The IRS has attempted (unsuccessfully, thankfully!) to tax people on the difference in value between the seeds they buy and the vegetables that grow from them. 

Comment by Mackenzie on 4th mo. 17, 2012 at 2:32pm

Oh, relating to garment work:

http://www.slowfashioned.com/archives/7886

It’s amazing to think that a hundred years ago, at the birth of ready-made clothing as we know it, women would drop six hundred dollars for a Parisian knock-off. Today a fashionable dress is cheaper than a bag of dog food. How did we get here?


I find the Slow Fashion movement interesting. I don't think the problem of garment work being undervalued will change until people's ideas of what's "better" change:  big wardrobe full of mass-produced, low-quality, sweatshop-made clothing, or tiny wardrobe of high-quality handmade items? It has switched over the last 200 years.

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