Based on an article originally published in New Age Journal, July/August, 1976. Reprinted from The Briarpatch Book, 1978, pp. 176-184.
A small, alternative business has many strikes against it: it does not have the financial leverage that larger companies employ; owners lack practical know-how and experience; banks demand success before they offer loans, and most start with insufficient capital to accomplish their goal properly.
Altogether, this spells trouble, and the fact that most small enterprises turn belly up within the first year underlines the point.
Compounding these challenges is the fact that a small business cannot afford the kind of professional advice that would help it through those difficulties. But now there are hundreds of businesses organized together to help and support the process.
They call themselves The Briarpatch.
The Briarpatch is comprised of people who are learning to live in the cracks of society with a Joyful consciousness of abundance. They define themselves as “positively oriented” raccoons, groundhogs, and rabbits who seek a livelihood that “nourishes and enlivens them.” Briars are concerned with the sharing of resources and skills with members of an ongoing community and see themselves as part of a “sub-society” that is more committed to “learning how the world works” than to acquiring its possessions and status.
A Patchwork Quilt
It is a crazy-quilt assemblage of the outrageous and conventional, stretched across the San Francisco Bay area like patchwork. From crowded communal flats high above San Francisco’s Noe Valley to $300,000 hand-crafted Sausalito houseboats on the bay, from the Montgomery Street offices of the New Dimensions Foundation to the Hayes Street Raskinflakkers Divinely United Ice Cream Organization, from Earthcamp One and Wilbur Hot Springs to Lifestyle Restructurers, Boogie Bands, and Rare Earth Real Estate Brokers of Remote Retreats. The Briarpatch network consists of devoted alternative lifestylers (peppered with a few Republicans) and saxicoline entrepreneurs producing and making exactly what they want to.
And if anyone from downtown thinks the Briarpatch is a trendy hippie puffball that will blow away every night, take note that it is coordinated by Andy Alpine, who has a B.A. in Economics, an M.A. in International Affairs and Chinese Politics, and a doctorate in Law. Andy has served as an assistant with the United Nations Secretariat, researching riparian laws and economics.
It was co-founded by Michael Phillips, one-time director of “Marketing and Planning” for Bank of America and the Bank of California, presently comptroller for the Glide Foundation.
It received its initial impetus from Dick Raymond, founder of the Portola Institute and a former businessman who holds the mythical M.B.A. from the Harvard Business School.
The roots of the Briarpatch network are in the Whole Earth Catalog, the best-selling manual of tools that became a tool in its own right. The catalog was a masterstroke in publishing and it pulled down the National Book Award. Its sales record amazed the industry. With so much energy pouring into the coffers of the Catalog, it answered the question of fiscal integrity by publicly accounting for every dollar spent and received. And when over a million dollars rolled in from the Random House edition, Stewart Brand and publisher Dick Raymond helped establish the Point Foundation to give all the money away.
For the first time in a generation’s memory, a group put its money where its mouth was and did not compromise its principles for the sake of personal gain.
In July 1974, having conceived of the idea and name of the “Briarpatch Society,” Dick Raymond called a weekend meeting for 25 co-earthlings who were then involved with Briarpatch-type activities. According to Raymond, the meeting was like turning a light on in a dark room and finding a few hundred other people besides yourself, people who were looking for a clarification of the relationship between money, business, and their personal lives.
“If we had tried to do the Briarpatch ten years ago,” comments Raymond, “we would have had a foundation, literature, meetings to discuss bylaws, all of which is a silly way to cope with human behavior. The Briarpatch has a quality of non-organization. There is no membership campaign and no formal rules. People hear about the Briarpatch and say ‘Oh yeah’ and define it for themselves, and their definition is a very fine one. It doesn’t require a strong institutional leader in order to function effectively.”
An Alternative To Greed
There are several principles that are the underlying basis of the Briarpatch. The first one is that there should be an alternative to greed, and the best substitute they’ve found so far is summed up in the word “sharing.” Greed is condemned not for moral but for practical reasons: it doesn’t work [as well as generosity]. It is part of a closed-end system that inhibits real evolutionary growth—the result of the planetary game that we have been playing for centuries called “winner takes all.” That game leaves a lot of losers with nothing to play.
Briars have decided to abandon that game in favor of a new game, an open-ended game, a game that is evolutionary and noncompetitive. Briars don’t see size as a goal, nor sales as a ranking. The success or failure of a Briar business is defined by other criteria. One of the most fundamental is whether the person(s) involved have learned anything about themselves or the world in the process of being in business. If a Briar business fails economically but the people involved have learned a great deal, then that is seen as success enough.
In this open-ended game the Briars play, an important consideration is the distinction between wants and needs, a concept that Briars call “simple living.” It is not so much a question of whether one makes four or fourteen thousand dollars a year, but of whether one has an awareness that almost everything we consume is based on some sort of preference and usually has nothing to do with needs.
Networking or Alliances
Another criterion Raymond mentions is the idea of networking or alliances. Networking in the Briarpatch means an awareness of the interconnectedness of society and the willingness of each member to be an open and dynamic interflow of ideas, services, and experience.
An example of Briar “networking” occurred when Play Experience, a company that designs and assists in the construction of playgrounds, could not find any underwriter to insure them. Each company feared a high potential for smashed thumbs and heads since Play Experience supervises amateur groups. Verner Hebenstreit, the Briarpatch insurance broker, finally persuaded one company to take the account. The premium, a healthy $1,500, had to be paid before a certain Saturday job, and on the preceding Tuesday, Play Experience had only $500 to its name. Andy contacted the network, and two Briars gave them $700 and $300 as interest-free loans for three months. It is this kind of willingness to support each other’s endeavors fully—monetarily, with skills, or just faith in the other person’s ability to make it—that made the Briarpatch into a commercial, yet non-competitive, ecology of synergetic enterprises.
One More Company (a real-world case)
When Dick Raymond arrived in Menlo Park ten years ago , he had successfully initiated and managed several businesses allied with the construction tool industry and had been netting $25,000-30,000 a year. After serving as a consultant to SRI, a west-coast think tank, he opened his own consulting firm which eventually evolved in stages into the nonprofit, education-oriented Portola Institute. Fulfilling as it was, the Portola Institute depleted his personal resources to the point that he now lived on $660 a month in a rented house with his second wife and their two small children.
One of Raymond’s responses to his reduced income has been to start One More Company, which manufactures “Shoe Patch,” a tube of gooey plastic adhesive useful for patching tennis and running shoes. One More Co. could be called an arch-Briar company, embodying every principle and desirable trait known to its founders. Shoe Patch comes in a reusable canister, which also contains “Raparound,” a newsletter giving consumer feedback, listings of some Briarpatch services, reviews of recent books, and financial data on the company. An open file of all company transactions including board meetings and present financial status is available to the public at the company offices.
I asked Dick how One More Co. was doing in the less than merciful world of business. “Horribly,” said Dick, but perhaps for the best of reasons. One More Company sells a fine, well-packaged product that has good consumer response, but the company is under-capitalized, badly staffed, and sales are lower than he had hoped. One More Company is struggling to make interest payments on a bank loan, and Raymond does not want to rely on the traditional venture capital sources in order to make it over the hump. And yet, if he doesn’t, he may not make it at all. Why?
Dick can only respond metaphysically. In order to run a stable company, one needs competent people, but if the company has a philosophical mission at the same time, one needs people who have a philosophical understanding of the company’s purpose.
What happens is that in most cases, these goals conflict. To stay in business one needs productive people, and the two rarely combine.
“I feel this is the fatal deficiency in running an enlightened business. These people who are trying to run humanistic businesses are going through the agony of the damned, trying to find people who can both work and understand what they are trying to do. At One More Company, we didn’t try to change dinosaurs into antelopes but went where the antelopes were. So what we have is a bunch of antelopes roaming in the Shoe Patch and they don’t know much about business. My whole gamble is that they will find out before we go out of business.”
An interesting dialectic. Some say greed makes the world go around. The Briars say it is bringing it to a grinding halt. According to Raymond’s experience, competence lies with the ambitious achievers, while the idealists are usually inept or disinterested. An oversimplification perhaps, but technology is definitely not antelope country, and the best still lack all conviction.
A Team of Advisers
One way the Briarpatch deals with the problem is to have Andy Alpine, Charles Albert Parsons, and Michael Phillips available to all members for financial and business consultation.
Michael’s involvement in Briarpatch dates from when he was director of Marketing and Planning at the Bank of California. There he met Dick Raymond, one of the bank’s clients. Raymond had been shuffled around from one department to another while trying to get official attention for the idea that the bank should provide space for its customers to meet and get to know one another. Michael thought it was a great idea, and during the three years it required to convince management, he and Dick did it on their own, holding informal gatherings at a downtown Japanese restaurant on Friday afternoons, meeting presidents, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, foundation heads, movers, shakers, thinkers, and priests, until a small network had been formed. That was the Briarpatch network prototype.
To get the real Briarpatch off the ground, Michael left his banking job and opened up an office at Pier 40, where he gave free consultation on Wednesdays to Briar-oriented people and businesses.
Andy Alpine first got involved in this kind of open consultation when, soon after the original Briarpatch conference, 10 of the participants met in San Francisco and decided that a coordinator should be hired, someone who could coordinate and relay information to everyone about each other’s activities. A few weeks after the second meeting, 12 individuals agreed to put up $25 a month for six months. On that subsistence wage, Andy Alpine took on the job of network coordinator.
People who had heard about the Briarpatch began showing up from hundreds of miles away. As news of the Briarpatch spread, others wanted to join who knew little or nothing about it but thought it was a coming countercultural trend that they should be a part of.
- Some wanted the publicity (there is none).
- Some thought they could get funding from the Briarpatch (wrong again).
- Others confused it with a “hip” Rotary that might help them get more business.
Since that time, Michael and Andy have closed the Pier 40 office and now visit individual Briar members on Thursdays.
Today  there are 125 businesses in the Briarpatch, each of which pays a “Briarpatch Pledge” of $30 to $110 every six months. The amount depends on what each member company feels it can afford, and in some cases, Briars provide services in lieu of the pledge. Some of this money covers Andy’s small salary and phone expenses (there is no office), and the balance pays for such expenditures as parties which are celebrated on the Briar holidays of:
- Groundhog Day
- Fathers Day
- New Orleans Mardi Gras and/or Brazilian Carnival
- Leap Day
These celebrations are an important aspect of Briarpatching since it is here that most connections between members are made.
Resources, Knowledge, Skills Exchange
When they are not together, Briars can consult the Skills-Exchange Newsletter, which lists the resources, knowledge, and skills that Briars make freely available to each other. A carpenter can phone a banker to get advice about arc-welding; a writer can phone a lawyer and get advice about copyright law. When specific tasks or materials are called for, Briars will often barter rather than use money. That is not to say that Briars don’t deal with money. They do, and for that reason, Andy’s and Michael Phillips’ consultation comes in quite handy.
Service versus Competition
You cannot serve others if you are only serving yourself.
Despite the fact that Briarpatching has a certain romantic appeal, most people would still rather go around in a Mercedes than a mufti. Americans are too apt to equate with material restraint, conscious limitation, the dollar sign somehow having become synonymous with freedom in our country.
Briars are learning that you cannot serve others if you are only serving yourself. While large corporations battle away at inflation, and each other, the industry of service is wide open. It has no resistance, no enemies, and can never be depleted. Service is a particular kind of currency where impoverishment is self-imposed. If “we” are going to make it on this planet, then we are going to start behaving as “we,” which means dropping all the old games of competition and separation. If we are going to stick around for a while, then perhaps we had best figure out a way to do that, in our businesses as well as our gardens and hearts.
The best statement in this regard is a quote from Bucky Fuller which is pasted over the john in a woodworking shop in Sausalito:
Take the initiative, go to work, and above all cooperate, and don’t hold back on one another.
Any success in such lopsidedness will be increasingly short-lived.
These are the synergetic rules evolution is employing and trying to make clear to us.
They are not man-made laws.
They are the infinitely accommodative laws of the intellectual integrity governing the universe.
Genius, Inventor, Briarpatch Hero