The accidental entrepreneur

When I first met Linsi Deyo, she was busy crafting a pile of funny round cushions she called “zafus.” I was impressed. Here was a woman who had found a trade she could follow in her rural Appalachian community, while most of the rest of us were commuting to Asheville. Little did I know that, one day, this woman would be my wife and business partner — and I would be a meditation-cushion salesman.

We were a good match, because we both subscribed to the same credo — that the current economic system, which exploits people and the environment to produce profit for stockholders, needs reform. I had always wanted to create a “right livelihood” — a business that would support my rural lifestyle, provide a meaningful service to the community, and be pollution-free. I wanted to be part of the “green business” movement, which promotes ethical, ecologically sound business policies and practices, both in the workplace and beyond.

The green-business movement is nothing new; in fact, it’s almost 2,600 years old. It was founded by Shakyamuni (i.e., the Buddha). Right livelihood is part of his Eight-fold Path to enlightenment, a formula for relieving suffering in one’s life and the world. It includes a system for cultivating “mindfulness,” or awareness, in everyday life.

Under the guise of “green business,” however, a lot of folks had gotten interested in right livelihood. A new market of green consumers had evolved — and I believed I had found the bridge between Buddhism and capitalism.

But neither Linsi nor I had the knowledge or the resources to effectively run a business, or tap into the booming Buddhist market. We were well-meaning, idealistic, social and environmental revolutionaries and artists who wanted to merge our ideals with our livelihood. We had each developed a repulsion for money and business. Having majored in philosophy and environmental education, our only business education was the school of hard knocks. Yet, on some level, we were fascinated by money and business. Perhaps we sensed that, if we could master these things, they would somehow become friendly. They might even reveal some answers that could open our minds and spark a dramatic shift in consciousness.

So, as we worked, we kept pushing aside our money issues — until the man from the power company knocked on our door with a “collect or disconnect” order. That’s when it hit us how money affects even the noblest intentions: Without it, even a green business can’t survive. Our $7,000-per-year income wasn’t working. Our little cottage industry had gotten too big for two people to handle alone — but it wasn’t big enough to support the employees it needed. The only answer was to sell more cushions.

But this whole idea seemed like capitalism, which I thought was the opposite of Buddhism. Wasn’t this supposed to be a noble, right-livelihood project? Wasn’t Buddhism, and our business, a sanctuary from the market economy, where one is bombarded with tacky, high-pressure messages to “buy this” or “eat here”? How could we promote our cushions without encouraging materialism (not to mention competition with other, equally-well-intentioned companies)?

Many weeks, the phone barely rang. It was like trying to sail with no wind. Our sympathetic friends offered much well-intentioned advice, such as: “Why don’t you sell them at football games? They would be great for those hard stadium seats.”

Everywhere we went, we were dreaming up ways to sell more cushions. We considered bumper stickers. They could say, “Carolina Morning Designs: Your one stop for enlightenment.” But how do you make a big noise with something that doesn’t make any noise at all?

We spent many years considering this as we worked in the business and sat on our meditation cushions, day in and day out. This was our koan: “How do you operate in the market economy with nonviolence — and still make a living? How do you make a living without supporting a system of destructive resource use and dysfunctional social practices?”

Instead of working toward a career, we’d spent years learning how to live sustainably: raising vegetables; bicycling for transportation; cultivating inner awareness; recycling paper, plastic and glass; writing our Congress-people; boycotting Wal-Mart; and working with local environmental groups. But we didn’t know how to do all this and make a living, too. Could they go together? Or must one sacrifice sustainability at work, in order to support it at home?

Over the next few years, we began to get some answers to these questions. The paradox of being a green consumer is that it ends up costing more — because you’re paying the true environmental and social costs — so you need to make more money. (How can we afford solar panels and get off the grid, if we’re struggling to buy organic carrots?) And to be truly green, you need to make money in a way that fosters sustainability, which limits your employment options. How many of us can say our work, or the company we work for, does this? Or the companies where we invest our money? Or the products we buy? Basically, the struggle for survival is as primal to us today as it was to our Stone Age ancestors. And immediate personal survival often overrides concern for long-range, planetary well being.

We also came to understand that even a green business must follow many standard procedures and principles. Just because we do good doesn’t mean we will do well. And we concluded that, unless we learned how to manage a business (and the money we were so repulsed by), we might as well just go find jobs. Money crunching, advertising and marketing, systems design and analysis — the very things that make Wall Street and the stock market tick — were what we had to learn.

One book that turned our perspective and our business around is The E-Myth: Why Most Small Businesses Fail and What to Do About Yours, by Michael Gerber. What’s most often overlooked, he says, is that running a business takes management skills. It’s not enough just to have a skill or design a good product. At a certain point, a business gets too big for one or two people to manage. And there’s usually no system in place, at that point, to support the sales volume needed to survive in our highly ordered and competitive marketplace. That’s why most businesses fail within the first five years.

We were a case in point. Cushions, fabrics, papers and equipment lay all over our house, porch and barn. Our bills were often paid late, with stiff fees; taxes weren’t filed on time. We could never seem to keep up, much less expand. We didn’t have a profit-and-loss statement, so there was no way to analyze anything about our business and make informed decisions. We couldn’t even take a short vacation. Pitiful.

We read the book in 1997, then signed up for an 18-month correspondence course at the E-Myth Academy. Since then, we’ve put in hundreds of hours quantifying, measuring, researching, projecting, imagining, fixing and systematizing everything from inventory to production to marketing and hiring. When we realized we’d netted around $12,000 that year, we had to wonder whether it was all worth it. So many years of our lives had been invested in building a dream that simply wasn’t sustaining us — and wasn’t even fun. It had become mostly a matter of survival, by that time.

It takes a lot of creativity for two people to live on $12,000 (especially while working full time). But we were determined to make our chosen lifestyle work. For months, we were constantly burnt out and exhausted, barely able to face the new day. We were caught between the old world of subsistence (make it, or do without) and the modern world of high-pressure business (analyze, quantify and compete), without any breathing room.

But there was no turning back. Call it karma or circumstance; by that time, there simply were no other viable options. In trying to spawn a better world, we’d created a very stressful and unstable life — the opposite of our ideal.

During hard times, there’s no better place to turn than to the very Buddhist teachings we were promoting with our cushions. We had to take a close look at the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths: Suffering (dukkha) exists; suffering has a cause (the attachment to pleasure, and the aversion to pain); liberation (happiness, peace) is possible; and the way to liberation is the Eight-Fold Path. Still, it took great strength for us to accept where we were and not be bitter, blame ourselves, or indulge in self-pity.

Somehow, though, we managed to stay together. We continued to live in our 10-foot-by-10-foot shelter, and we worked side by side to pull Carolina Morning Designs out of the chaos into which it had sunk. We decided that overcoming our obstacles would be much more rewarding than giving in to them. We accepted the notion of a specialized world with a market economy, and we were ready to participate in it. Learning how to be in this world and not of it was so much more meaningful than deciding we could never fit in and consigning ourselves to a life of resistance and regret.

This is not exactly a rags-to-riches story, the kind that seems to fascinate so many folks. Don’t get me wrong: Money is certainly a part of prosperity, but it’s not the only part. No, this story is about something much more powerful than the simple acquisition of wealth.

This is a tale about looking at money and the lack of it, and learning not to identify with or cling to either state. It’s about two people’s quest for right livelihood and their coming to terms with the way things are, which is always impermanent. It’s about developing present-moment awareness and practicing it in the experimental arena of work. It’s about perseverance, determination and running a business with integrity amid the din of our often-harsh economic climate.

Today, Carolina Morning Designs employs seven people part time, in addition to Linsi and me. The hard work of systematizing, organizing and strategizing is paying off, in the form of increased efficiency and sales. The casual environment fosters fun and camaraderie, and the work enables all of us to maintain a rural lifestyle, while most of our neighbors must commute. That’s perhaps the biggest achievement — the simple act of living where we work, which has allowed us to plant gardens, bike to work, and create true community. We are in a constant state of dynamic evolution and learning, changing, rearranging, organizing and restructuring, as we dance with the fluctuations of the marketplace and stretch to integrate each new insight.

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