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Entrepreneurship and Long-Term Planning in an Income-Sharing Community: A Report from the Frontlines

Posted on October 15, 2019 by
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Excerpted from the Fall 2019 edition of Communities, “The Shadow Side of Cooperation”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.

I write this for all those interested in founding their own communes, and particularly, founding their own commune businesses.

Recently, I reread an article I wrote about my experiences with managing East Wind Nut Butters (based at East Wind Community, Tecumseh, Missouri) that was published in Communities in 2017. I had been heavily involved in the office operations, upper management you might call it, for less than two years at the time. My travels along the learning curves of business management (amongst many other skills) have been exponentially expedited while living at East Wind. I return to the pen and keyboard once again to examine and attempt to understand the current situation. I am writing here specifically about entrepreneurship at East Wind. East Wind Nut Butters (EWNB) is one of a few decently sized companies that were founded decades ago and have become established within the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (FEC). I do not have any experience starting up a company (especially in the income-sharing context). Perhaps in another couple years I will have something to share on that front. Now that I’ve made my focus explicit, let’s see what we have learned.

When I came in, Nut Butters (NB) was ailing due to high turnover in important management positions. The Sales Manager position had been seriously neglected for years. This was my first position, soon adding General Manager and later, Purchasing Manager. Even with my lack of experience, I was trusted with plenty and given the latitude to take risks and make mistakes. I was not omnipotent by any means. Other business managers and community members have the power to check manager decisions. Both the General and Sales Manager positions are elected (Purchasing Manager being appointed by the General Manager). However, when it comes to doing the Purchasing and Sales for a multi-million-dollar company, you can sign a contract or make a quick decision that can either earn or cost your business tens of thousands of dollars. No salaries, no commissions, no bonuses, hardly any oversight, and negligible (for the most part) penalties present a significant morale hazard that puts the business at risk (and potentially, the community, especially if that single business generates 95+ percent of the community’s income, as is the case with East Wind).

In reality, the pace of running a competitive business of this scale doesn’t match up with the often slow and disinterested pace of the community at large. General trust in the executive decision makers is required, as is the respect you garner from those you work with. Reputation changes over time and people’s perceptions are important. How you communicate with others and what you choose to communicate; how you conduct your personal life…there are many factors and it can be incredibly taxing to maintain and build this trust in the face of consistent turnover.

Taking on the stresses of manager responsibilities in the 100 percent income-sharing framework requires a certain idealism and sense of direction. My initial motivations revolved around believing that getting the business back on track and relieving the anxiety of financial strain for the community would lead to greater ability to make long-term plans and specifically, address major infrastructure concerns. I was able to take on increasing levels of responsibility as I learned and became more efficient in the office. I regularly worked 40- to 70-hour weeks (with at least half of these hours being directly related to my NB work). My sense of ownership developed in this time and my identity became closely attached to both East Wind Nut Butters and East Wind Community. Never in my two decades of formal education had I learned so much in such a short amount of time.

However, once I was no longer learning as much as I could in the business realm, some of the work became routine and could weigh on me, stress me. Largely, this stress was due to my own standards. In the world of sales, getting back to your customer within 15 minutes is a very different thing than getting back to them the next day. Timing is very important and in the food industry being responsive is an incredible competitive advantage. This is primarily how I built a new customer base for EWNB.

Over a period of years, ego crept back in and resentment soon followed. Having ideas is one thing; executing them is quite another thing. In the 100 percent income-sharing context with 40 equal owners, even if you are responsible for 50 percent of the income coming in, you still only have 2.5 percent of the vote guaranteed. You work to make the money, but you don’t necessarily get to say how it is all spent. This doesn’t give much incentive to go above and beyond. The incentive to do that is a general sense of contentment with oneself and one’s community―enough overlap of vision and intention allowing for a tolerance for differences.

I enjoyed the challenge of the responsibilities taken up, but I also had a general direction of improvement in mind for East Wind. As East Wind’s financial position improved, some things lined up with this general direction: rebuilding the shower house, buying newer used vehicles from dealerships instead of gambling on lemons, paying a roofing contractor to work on a number of buildings. However, just about every budget and account was increased and I was frustrated with the distinct lack of interest in even discussing long-term planning, specifically in regards to investing in building infrastructure. Each year came with votes on the amount of personal profit-sharing to be disbursed among the members. Each year resulted in a vote that overrode existing legislation in order to give more money to individuals. The community’s kitchen budget grew. Let there be no doubt that East Wind has the best food in the FEC. For someone like me, who originally came to East Wind to learn how to garden and live more seasonally, it is disheartening to see the community kitchen purchasing in-season produce that directly competes with the community garden. I am reminded of stories I’ve read of the consumption binges that some lottery winners pursue back to the point of origin: destitution.

The drive to work harder began to wane after years of holding these important NB positions. Publicly, I made it clear that I wanted to step down from these positions and was willing to train people to take over. Unfortunately, no members really wanted to step up until recently (imagine that). It is an ongoing process for me to pull back. The last member to attempt to train for the sales position burnt out and left the community after his girlfriend broke up with him. Reliability and competence are in short supply for the upper-level management positions. I am holding onto most of the sales position and currently training others to deal with purchasing and the various aspects of the general manager position. I now have more realistic hopes!

I recently read a magazine called Entrepreneur. In it, the CEO of Spanx advises to “fire faster” and “hire your weaknesses.” I think this is great advice for an entrepreneur in, say, Silicon Valley. Such powers are not easily manifested on a commune. Managers at East Wind do have the power to “fire” people. A manager can prevent someone from claiming hours in their labor area. This is an incredibly rare occurrence and not to be taken lightly. Labor done in the income-generating areas directly affects personal discretionary funds at East Wind.

Hiring is an entirely different story. Hiring outside contractors for specific things such as construction can be done, but not without the potential grievances aired of those who live at East Wind and think that “we can do it all ourselves.” I’m all for DIY. I love growing my own food, for example. However, I am also all for hiring help when we need it and especially if we are not capable of doing it properly ourselves. East Wind is a place of learning, but running such a complex operation requires outside help. We sure as hell are not growing all the peanuts, almonds, and cashews we use in our butters. We buy these things from those we trust.

Hire your weaknesses: this is why recently a lot of my time and energy has gone into making videos about East Wind for YouTube and trying to be supportive of newer members (whereas before I was in the “sink or swim” camp); working to get people to come here and want to stay. Unfortunately, my idea to offer a paid internship for office work was rejected. At this point in my membership at East Wind, my morale is heavily dependent on my perceptions of the newer members. Strategic use of the internet does seem to be improving the quality of incoming people. Coupling that with serious investment into our infrastructure (it is happening, but too slowly for my taste) would increase the chances of retaining desperately needed talent.

Getting away from predominantly ascribing monetary value to others can be a difficult thing. There are numerous decades-long members at East Wind who explicitly and openly judge other members based on what they contribute in terms of labor, and that usually is reduced to monetary value. I myself was hardline on this position for years and can still easily fall into this way of thinking. How productive are you? What would you be getting paid “out there”? How would the market judge you? Numbers don’t lie, as my millionaire uncle tells me. This is a peculiar mindset and it surely isn’t healthy to be constantly caught up in it.

Finding a different accounting, a less narrow range of judgment, benefits healthy communal interactions. The cohesion and happiness of the group matters more to me now than it ever has. We are not equal. We are all different. Some of us are brutally efficient worker bees and some of us are the wonderfully caring social butterflies. Not everyone is management material. Not everyone is detail-oriented. Not everyone has the discipline and drive to change themselves. Accepting and embracing these differences facilitates the critical emergent properties of living communally. Achieving that mix that flows effortlessly takes time and critical decision making.

The “deadline” for this article is tomorrow. I have been working on writing a piece for over a month now. It may seem convoluted. There is much more to say on many matters, more to come in the Winter Communities issue. I just got off the phone with an old friend. We spoke for over three hours about what we had been doing, what our lives have been for the past five years. We had been undergrads at the same large, top-10 state business school. He wanted out of the corporate finance rat race. He said he was replaced within the hour when he quit. Told me I was “further along” than him, “woke” he says (that word makes me chuckle). He talked about how in college he just had the mindset of party, get that first job to make some money and then do his own thing. Now he is a digital nomad residing in Mexico for the moment, near the second largest reef in the world. He had been traveling many places, staying a month at a time. He is seeking a community. Can’t make friends out there. No new friends for five years, he tells me. A spiritual experience involving DMT has him probing for new direction in life.

This unexpected interaction bolstered my motivations for living in the communities movement. I’ve put down roots for four years at East Wind and now I have the travel bug, an itch to see who and what is out there. I’m pulling back from being completely invested in EWNB, seeing how the cards fall. It is just one business owned by one community. There are several communal spaces, communal businesses, and potential community ideas to engage with. I’ve come to the conclusion that co-creating a resilient network of communally minded people is the most important work I can be doing right now.

Sumner Ely Nichols III has lived at East Wind Community for four years. He is currently attempting to transition his role and identity in the community. A garden manager who makes videos for the four YouTube channels he started this year, Sumner enjoys birding and reading about Earths changing climate. Somewhat of a historian, he aspires to write a book about the East Wind experience. You can find his video content by searching for the East Wind Community channel on YouTube.

Excerpted from the Fall 2019 edition of Communities, “The Shadow Side of Cooperation”—full issue available for download (by voluntary donation) here.


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