Rewritten from the 1983 version that was compiled from archives by a committee of members. Revised by Claude Whitmyer, 2002, 2006, and 2016.
In the history of the extended friendship circles from which the Briarpatch Network arose, the idea of the anti-heroic Briarpatch Society came first. Championed by Dick Raymond of the Portola Institute to all who would listen, its first tangible manifestation was a simple journal format publication created by author Gurney Norman called The Briarpatch Review.
Norman had previously authored the novel “Divine Rights Trip” serialized in the pages of The Last Whole Earth Catalogue. He took advantage of downtime in the catalog offices to layout, print, and distribute this collection of the stories emerging from the gradual coalescence of this new cultural phenomenon: an alternative to greed, based on mutual support for right livelihood and simple living.
The Fledgling Friendship Network
Folks involved in the extended family/community that grew up around the Whole Earth Catalog started various businesses including a coop food market, a woman-owned auto repair shop, and several others. By the time Gurney Norman decided to put together that first Review more than two dozen projects doing commerce in a different way had been identified.
The Community Organizer
Former banker and commerce guru Michael Phillips was the organizer of the first Briarpatch Network. Under his leadership, between 1974 and 1984, the Network evolved into a real, “tribal” community. It nurtured many important contributions to society and culture during that period. Its members continue to make meaningful contributions today.
Phillips’ efforts were principally responsible for the extended life of the community during its first decade. Some key actions he took that made the difference between a “flash-in-the-pan” and a long-lived reality for the network include:
- Hired the first network coordinator with funds raised from five of his close friends.
- Helped organize the first community meeting of potential members.
- Coaxed the fledgling membership into a commitment to provide ongoing funding of the coordinator’s salary.
- Restarted publication of the Briarpatch Review and nurtured it through 11 more issues.
- Recruited and mentored the network coordinators.
- Recruited and mentored a team of apprentice consultants to provide ongoing guidance to member businesses.
- Held weekly office hours for advice and then led the consulting team on most of the weekly visits to member business sites.
- Encouraged and coached the formation of sister networks in the San Francisco Bay Area.
- Wrote several books that chronicled the history of the network, but more importantly, shared the lessons we learned about how to succeed in business, the Briarpatch way.
- Recruited other members to launch a Briarpatch business school that made more efficient knowledge transfer possible.
- Visited several countries to help launch experimental networks.
- Even got the Briarpatch principles introduced into the World Bank.
Michael raised the first round of funding by introducing Dick Raymond to Rev. Lew Durham, CPA Elliot Buchdrucker, insurance broker Werner Hebenstreit, lawyer Tom Silk, and film producer Ron Wilton. Michael and the six of them raised enough money to hire the first Briarpatch coordinator Andy (Bahauddin) Alpine.
The Coordinator Role
At first, small business people came for advice, which Michael gave freely. Then Andy would follow up to make introductions to referrals or facilitate the location of resources. Over time, the role evolved to include a wide variety of network support and communication activities, including:
- Monitor the “Ask the coordinator anything” hotline
- Schedule weekly consulting sessions for members
- Plan and organize parties or educational events
- Maintain the mailing list
- Help to send out the Briarpatch Review or, later, the network newsletter
- Organize the skills exchange
- Host the monthly lunch open to the public
- Fend off unfriendly journalists
- Participate as a board member or on action teams for Network projects, such as:
- Apprentice Alliance (matching apprentice candidates with excellent masters in the arts, trades, or business)
- Common Good School (a school for community organizers taught by community organizers)
- Appleseed (a conference of businesses or projects, in existence for at least 5 years, located west of the Rockies, and using a new economic approach in their structure and/or tactics).
- Oak (a self-organized study group focused on understanding group dynamics and made up of educators, therapists, and business consultants)
- Noren Insitute (a private business school teaching the Briarpatch approach to business)
- and so on.
Early on Michael, Dick Raymond and Lew Durham collaborated on organizing the first member meeting as a weekend retreat for a couple of dozen Briar-like businesses. This event brought people closer and solidified the network’s emotional identity.
Shortly after, the attendees were asked if they would be willing to raise the coordinator’s salary as a group. They said “Hell, yes! We will!”, solidifying the network’s fiscal identity.
Even with technical, financial, and emotional support, it wasn’t long before Andy felt he couldn’t do everything by himself. He began to look for someone to help and groom to be the next coordinator.
Michael had found and hired Andy as the first coordinator so it was only natural that he should participate in recruiting Charles Albert (Shali) Parsons to help Andy.
With Michael’s participation, Shali in turn recruited Claude Whitmyer as his helper and replacement. Whitmyer has been the coordinator from 1984 to the present.
Andy later became the publisher of Common Ground a publication that listed courses, workshops, products, and services available from small businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area. Common Ground was emulated in major metropolitan areas across the U.S.
Shali moved to Hawaii where he offered right livelihood counseling paid for by cash or barter.
In the beginning, Phillips and Alpine started out using a small office on San Francisco’s Pier 40 to hold free consulting sessions every Wednesday.
Very soon, so many people were coming for the advice sessions that Phillips asked four of the original salary donors, Dick, Elliot, Werner, and Tom, to help out sometimes.
As the need grew, the consultations were shifted to site visits to member businesses. Sessions were available each week and were free to dues-paying members.
From 1974 through 1994, the Briarpatch saw more than 1,000 people pass through its membership roles with between 200 and 400 active members, on average, at any given time. An active member is defined as anyone who pays dues or seeks support through one of the many support activities or who, most of the time, shows up to parties or other community events. The 10 to 20 people who usually showed up at the public monthly gatherings were considered newcomers and only those who came almost every time were ever counted as active members. Peaking in the late 70s at 600, active members regularly exceeded 400 during the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Today, there are always 200 to 300 names on the current mailing list with 100 to 200 active members at any given time.
- Hold a panel or lecture by one or more Briarpatch celebrities and several hundred people will show up.
- Throw a party and 50 to 100 people will attend.
- Hold a workshop on business skills and up to 30 or more members will participate.
The ongoing monthly online gathering—that has replaced the monthly in-person meetings we formerly held—attracts 10 to 15 attendees each month from a core group of about 60 members. Each meeting is composed of a different, revolving set of members from that group with occasional guests or new members also attending.
Other Networks and Alliances
There were satellite networks in Marin and Sonoma counties, in the East Bay, and on the Peninsula. Over the years, we have also been in touch with groups offering support structures similar to ours:
- In the U.S.: California, Tennessee, Washington, Washington D.C.
- Internationally: Australia, Canada, Denmark, England, France, Japan, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden.
While we are aware of some national groups like Main Street Alliance, a grassroots coalition of 10,000 plus small business owners espousing “progressive views,” we don’t really count them as “Briarpatch-like” because they’re simply too big. It’s almost impossible to retain the interpersonal intimacy of the Briarpatch—one of its core strengths—with a group of more than 200 trying to be full participants. That period where the number of members reached and surpassed 400 coincided with efforts to create satellite networks.
With possible size limitations in mind, we encourage you to look for a chapter of Main Street near you. Go introduce yourself. If you like what you feel, don’t hesitate to join and focus on giving and getting support from people who live in your own local area. If you’re lucky, you may find you already have a Briarpatch of your own.
If you can’t find a local group you feel good about, we encourage you to think seriously about starting your own.
How to Start a Briarpatch Where You Live
The best way to find a Briarpatch where you live is to just start one. Here's how:
What’s your purpose? Every business support network is different. Most combine both emotional support and practical business counsel in various mixes. A clear purpose, openly shared will make it easier for you to attract others.
Recruit at least one buddy. If you already meet regularly with a buddy, the two of you will make the perfect kernel of an organizing team. Each of you can invite another person and you’ll have a business “mastermind” group. As each new person invites their friends and associates, you can evolve into a network.
Avoid homogeneity. Many groups form around the similarities we see in each other, and that’s ok. But for longevity and innovation and the opportunity to change and grow, make a focused effort to invite people who are different. Of course, you will want to invite experts in accounting, law, marketing, and so forth. That’s just good business sense. But also invite all genders and multiple ethnicities, and make a special place for the creative, the strange, and the wonderful.
Choose the right meeting place. Bay Area Briars have met in the posh San Francisco Tennis Club, board rooms, restaurant banquet rooms, right in the middle of bustling cafes, in school classrooms, at different member homes, and just about any place you can think of.
Our longest continuously used meeting space was an art gallery where we met once a month for 6 years. We stored tables and chairs in the back of the gallery that we brought out each time we met.
Mutual support was the main attraction, but members also looked forward to the continuously changing exhibits.
The place you choose will have a profound effect on the “look and feel” of the meeting. Make sure it’s in alignment with what you’re trying to accomplish.
Meet regularly and continuously. If members know when and where the meeting will always be held, you’ll spend less time organizing and more time meeting. Folks will incorporate the rhythm of the meeting into their routines.
The San Francisco Briarpatch has stuck to the first Wednesday of each month (except January and July) since 1977.
Experience has shown us that “buddy teams” (2 people) should meet once a week, but business “masterminds” (groups of 3 to 12 people) work best if they meet less often, but at least once a month.
Use meeting facilitation techniques. Agree on an agenda, appoint a timekeeper and a recorder to take down key ideas, decisions, and agreements on chart pads or big paper on the wall.
Get more than one person to learn some rudimentary graphic recording techniques because a picture, icon, or symbol is each “worth 1,000 words.”
Work together to keep the meeting moving and stick to the agreed-upon schedule.
At our monthly meetings, we try to give each attendee up to 2 minutes to introduce themselves and their project/art/business. With more than about 10 people, we try to have a timekeeper who helps attendees keep track of time and move quickly through their 10 to 50-word “elevator” speeches. Then the floor is opened for a round of wants and needs, followed by brainstorming of solutions, when appropriate. These can range from simple resource referrals to shared words of wisdom from hard-won experiences. The timekeeper is stringent about time so there is also some left at the end for announcements and informal networking.
Eat Lunch. Meeting over lunch draws more attendees because no matter how busy you are, you have to eat and lunch is a time that no one is expecting you to be at your desk.
Many groups are successful at organizing potlucks, but it is extra effort.
Bay Area Briars held a monthly bring your own “brown bag” lunch successfully for more than 12 years. Participants often brought food to share, but it wasn’t a requirement.
Think About Meeting Online. We’ve been doing this once a month since March of 2017. Attendance is steady and sometimes we have as many as 16 people in the web conferencing room (we finally settled on Zoom.us after several months of testing various options). It’s a different mix of people each time, totaling about 60 intrepid Web-adventurers since 2017.
You might want to ease into it and maybe hold in-person sessions once per quarter to help keep the juice flowing that comes from being in the same room with your friends and having a good time. (Hopefully, COVID will not be with us forever.)
The Briarpatch Review
In 1973 Gurney Norman published The Briarpatch Review, the first compilation of stories from the nascent Briarpatch community.
An ever-evolving team of Network members launched the next effort 12 months later and published eleven more issues to make an even dozen by the time that publication stopped.
The first eight issues of the reborn Review were compiled into The Briarpatch Book: Experiences in Right Livelihood and Simple Living from the Briarpatch Community and published by New Glide/Reed in 1978.