Building a Business in Community

Posted on March 7, 2008 by

Author: Alline Anderson
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #138

It has always seemed inevitable that I would one day start my own business. I used to dream of a book shop: a fire blazing in a hearth, my trusty golden retriever snoozing in front, the aroma of fresh-brewed espresso wafting throughout.
But when my husband Kurt and I moved to Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in 1999, I couldn’t see that happening. Even with my vivid imagination there was clearly neither traffic nor demand for a bookstore here in rural northeastern Missouri (Dancing Rabbit is located three miles from Rutledge, population 103, and fifteen miles from the county seat of Memphis, population 1,200). While I took some solace in knowing that Larry McMurtry has made his teeny hometown of Archer City, Texas a destination because of the bookstore he runs there, I am neither an Academy Award winning screenwriter nor a Pulitzer-Prize-caliber author. And rumor has it that his store, like many independent bookstores, is struggling.
So the brainstorming began. And, like all great ideas, our solution was staring us in the face the whole time. Dancing Rabbit, now ten years old with an adult population of about 36 and a kid population of nine, is growing by leaps and bounds. We have had several documentaries made about us, including an episode of Morgan Spurlock’s 30 Days, and countless articles and term papers. We answer hundreds of emails from around the world and host several hundred visitors a year. Many more would like to come, but we are currently unable to accommodate them.
And there was the key.
Hundreds of people want to visit, to learn about sustainability and to witness environmental living in action. But because of limited housing options we have had to restrict our visitors to those who are seriously interested in becoming members. This leaves many out in the cold—those who want to learn more but do not want to move here.
At the same time, one of our most serious challenges, particularly for women, is earning a living. There currently isn’t any “industry” here that people can plug into.
Kurt and I began to wonder: could we support ourselves by sharing our skills and our passions—and at the same time meet two of the most pressing needs of our community?
And so began the Milkweed Mercantile: a four-bedroom bed & breakfast, a café with a commercial kitchen, and a store/community space all rolled into one. Our desire is that it become a business incubator for residents and members of Dancing Rabbit. It is a privately-owned, cooperatively run, profit-sharing venture. We’re hoping our multi-tasking skills will bring in—gosh—tens of dollars!
The Mission and Goals of the Milkweed Mercantile
The mission of the Mercantile is to provide meaningful work for a life that is sustainable in all ways.
Our goals are to create jobs; provide a market for items made, grown, and created by Dancing Rabbit members; provide a comfortable place for visitors and potential new members to stay while visiting; demonstrate the viability and aesthetic beauty of natural and alternative building; and teach others about living a more sustainable life through onsite seminars, public events, and our website
All Mercantile staffers will be paid the same hourly wage, plus a share of the profits. We are also establishing a Mercantile Artisan’s Coop, which will provide materials and assistance in crafting items for sale.
Our Philosophy
We intend the Milkweed Mercantile to be a place where people can go to regroup and remember what is in their hearts.
As members of Dancing Rabbit, we are building the Mercantile with the same guiding principles and priorities with which we are building our village. These priorities and values are not just a trend or a phase we are going through. They are how we live our lives, what we are passionate about, and why we leap out of bed in the morning. The Milkweed Mercantile (a for-profit business) and Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage (the nonprofit Land Trust where the business is located) are committed to demonstrating ecological sustainability.
The Mercantile is a two-story strawbale building powered solely by sun and wind. Our water is all rainwater collected off our roof and stored in our 7,000-gallon cistern. We have a top-of-the-line composting toilet, and all building materials are either reclaimed or made from renewable resources. Surrounding the building will be a large wraparound porch to encourage porch-sitting, sunset-gazing, and long conversations. We hope to open in the summer of 2008.
The Eco Inn will be an entirely green alternative to a traditional B&B, demonstrating that sustainability does not have to mean deprivation—there can be beauty, abundance, and joy in living lightly on the earth. We will be presenting a variety of seminars (natural building, whole-foods cooking, yoga, consensus, and more) taught by members of Dancing Rabbit.
The Café will serve seasonal, local, organic meals. The ingredients will come from gardeners here at Dancing Rabbit and from other local farmers and producers. Coffee and tea will be fair trade and organic, the wines and beers primarily organic and local. In addition to meals, the kitchen will produce organic baked and preserved goods for onsite dining and takeaway. Our commercially approved kitchen will be available for use by DR members to produce items for sale.
The Store will sell handcrafted items, organic food products, books, and ethically-sourced eco items. While beautiful and appealing, these products should be “things you need” rather than “things we want you to desire.” We will have that fireplace that I have always dreamed of, although my muddy dog will have to stay outside.
The Milkweed Mercantile online will weave all three components of the Mercantile into a whole cloth of eco inspiration. Inn reservations and store purchases will be easily made online. Additionally, the site will feature articles on aspects of an ecological life, links to websites we believe in, and even the sounds of the prairie. Visiting our site, you will not see any advertising, nor will you be encouraged to purchase stuff for stuff’s sake. What we hope you will find is thoughtfully-prepared information presented with honesty and integrity.
Benefits of starting a business in community
First on this list is the ten-yard commute. And the price is right—as part of the Dancing Rabbit Land Trust we pay a minimal lease fee per month. Alternative building, while time-consuming, can be more cost-effective than traditional construction. All builders are either members of Dancing Rabbit (enabling us to keep money within the community), or work exchangers (enabling us to fulfill our outreach and education mission). It is a joy to be building a business that embraces and supports my values. It is our hope that everyone in the community will benefit from the abundance that the Mercantile will bring.
Kurt and I are fortunate to have a small nest egg from my parents. Additionally, the Mercantile was awarded a grant for socially-conscious, woman-owned businesses from the Eileen Fisher apparel company. The grant will be used to purchase a wind turbine and to cover legal assistance as we establish the Employee Profit Sharing and Artisan Coop Programs. By starting slowly and keeping costs down, we expect to be profitable within two years.
Community Support
This is the part that has been the most rewarding—and the most scary— for me. Up until now DR has been small and fairly insular. While we have regular public tours, an annual open house, and visitor sessions throughout the summer, we still get pretty used to it just being us around here. While we all agree that we hope to grow to a village of 500, getting there has always looked a bit fuzzy. So it was with some trepidation that Kurt and I shared our dream with the community. I so crave the support of my peers in bringing my dream to fruition. How would they react to the prospect of hosting a constant stream of (even more) strangers?
Fortunately, our plans have been mostly well-received, and people seem to share our feeling that the benefits will outweigh the difficulties. Our community members, like us, anticipate that folks interested in staying at DR will be kindred spirits. Many members also look forward to having a comfortable place for friends and families to stay when they come to visit. At our annual retreat in February the group will undoubtedly spend time discussing the ramifications, both positive and negative, of inviting hundreds of people to Dancing Rabbit. Kurt and I look forward to feedback, and to making the Mercantile an asset to the community.
Reality Check
We thought we’d start building in March 2007. But it rained and rained and rained. The rain came in amounts that Noah would have cowered under. Finally, in June the sun came out, and in spite of numerous cave-ins our fantastic crew finally got our basement, storm shelter, and foundation completed. Then in July and October both Kurt and I suffered intense personal losses in our respective families. The project stalled again. But every single person in the DR, Sandhill, and Red Earth Farms communities was there for us, both physically and emotionally. We rallied our spirits and charged ahead. By winter the building was framed and gorgeous. We continued work whenever the weather allowed, and when it became too frigid to work outside, we came indoors to plan for the spring.
Crafting this business from scratch is the most exciting and terrifying thing I have ever done. I often feel overwhelmed. I am not really starting one business—I am starting four: a B&B, a café, an online store, and a “brick and mortar” store. It is often paralyzing to write check after check with funds not yet coming in. But it is equally exhilarating to tell others about my business and watch their faces light up. Sometimes when we get really nervous, Kurt and I pull out our DVD of Field of Dreams. Corny as it sounds, we take comfort as we sit in the dark of our cozy living room, chanting to ourselves “if we build it, they will come…”
The other thing that never fails to encourage us is the amazing help we’re getting from our extended community. For instance, DR member Amy Seiden has always dreamed of running a B&B, and has agreed to be our Inn Manager. Jason Meier, a member of neighboring Red Earth Farms, has had years of restaurant experience and cooks like a man possessed. He has expressed interest in running our café. A new resident has an extensive background in retail inventory systems, a green interior designer has signed on to help, former DR interns are planning the garden, and other supporters keep appearing as the building takes shape.
We are clearly on the right track, and it feels great. I continue to learn the same lesson over and over—if I follow my heart, good things happen. By living in community, I feel that all things are possible.

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