Monday, November 1, 2010

Community Enterprise - the time is ripe!

Community vs Corporate enterprise

SourdoughBaker Coop Cafe has been designed as a community enterprise. Of course, in effect we've actually found our community through the enterprise. Every day someone pops in who has heard of us on the grapevine and thought they had better drop by to share their particular expertise with us. 

In this way, we've gathered baristas, bakers, carpenters, steelsmiths, chefs, firewood people, steam train stokers, orchardists, jam makers, community gardeners, administrators and visual marketers. The list of skills in our community we can draw from in the future, or from which we have already drawn, is already impressive, and after only seven months!

So a community enterprise is a way to entrench and connect a craftsman culture in a region, because it is part of the town.

A community can sometimes be bound by geography, common interests, common beliefs, common politics, or a loose affiliation of any of the above, and more. Common turf, so to speak, though 'turf' can take on many meanings. 

A community of interest, in other words.

A community enterprise serves, draws from, and ultimately strengthens its community or communities. It flourishes or perishes according to how well it does this - but unlike any other business, a community enterprise is, on some level, accountable to its community - especially if it gathers its capital, whether people power or cash, directly from this community.

So that's a community enterprise - where does it differ from a corporate enterprise?

A corporation is not accountable to a community, but to its shareholders. Shareholders usually represent a diverse range of interests, but what unites them is the profit motive. Shareholders cannot directly tell the corporation how to suck eggs, but if the profit motive is not met for them, the corporation is usually told, en mass, that it can go and play with someone else's money. So the corporation serves the god of profit first and foremost. It goes where there is money to be made.

Essentially, this makes the corporation from 'somewhere else' - it is not from here. The corporation is from nowhere, and yet, it is everywhere. Omnipresent. Omnipotent.

Right now, in the land of opportunity, the corporation pretty much holds the key - though it will happily sell it to the highest bidder.

Small business worldwide has been largely destroyed by corporate business.  If it has not been destroyed, it has been absorbed - think of the  franchise business model, where common branding has replaced goodwill as the primary asset.

Surely the corporation can enhance the business process? Usually it simply replicates a working formula designed by someone else. Think common systems, merchandising and marketing and so on. In the end, the corporation makes a lean and mean, technology and capital driven business machine, which single operators simply can't emulate. 

Which is why the corporate model dominates globally today. Communities are seen as markets, and customers are simply consumers of the brand within the marketplace. The brand is then leverage for more brand. Growth?

Something got lost. Something to do with local colour, local character. Something to do with connectedness. Something to do with soul. Something to do with place, community.

The rise and fall of the main street

We have, especially here in Newcastle, an abundance of soulless shopping malls which service our gluttony, our brand worship and our self image. Corporate real estate for franchised tenants.

Yet places with 'soul' as opposed to 'sold' still exist. We continue to gravitate to places where there is something unique, something special to entice us. More often than not, these places are built upon generations of small and medium sized businesses, focused on their customers above everything else.

But these places are becoming fewer, and they are 'destinations' rather than where people actually live. The relentless creep of convenience shopping, the supermarket and the shopping mall, has meant the slow decay of locality. The butcher and the baker have taken up residence within the mall, and abandoned the main street. Eventually, as has happened so often in Newcastle, buildings become unkempt and are eventually replaced with either another shopping mall or another fast food franchise. In the meantime, we get decay and transience as the norm.

And yet, to so many of us, our locality, the place where we walk and commute and interact with others most often, also defines us. It gives us a sense of belonging, and a connection. And, when this locality eventually succumbs to the march of progress, part of us is also lost. 

Hang with me right here in forthcoming posts where I'll attempt to string all of these ideas and experiences I've written about here and in other places into the business model for SourdoughBaker Coop Cafe!

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