Mendo Island Journal — Timely. Useful. Sometimes Cranky.

Open Books

From The Briarpatch Book: Experiences in Right Livelihood and Simple Living (1978)
The Briarpatch Network
By Michael Phillips and Kristin Anundsen

Business is essentially a mysterious thing. In most cases, when a business is successful or unsuccessful, no one can tell you precisely why. It may have been the location, the match between type of business and current need, the ads and logo, the distributor… almost anything. Relationships among all these aspects and many more are complex and usually far from obvious. There is only one language in which business speaks to us — only one indicator that is concrete: money. The only place to look for signals is the company’s books.

Many companies want to keep their books secret. That is not the Briarpatch way of doing things. Openness is a keystone of Briarpatch operations, for it promotes community and learning, two other Briarpatch values. Openness leads to trust, responsibility, new ideas, greater awareness. It promotes better relationships with customers or creditors as well as with other people who are in similar businesses.

The Originator
The first Briar business to initiate the “open books” policy was the Whole Earth Catalog. In each issue, Stewart Brand published a financial statement. He figured that since the Catalog was supposed to describe tools that help people run their lives better, and learning about finances is an important tool, a statement about the financial condition of the Catalog itself would be appropriate. He had another motive as well: he wanted other people to learn how to start publications like his own so he wouldn’t have to keep doing the Catalog forever…

Many Briar businesses have brief financial statements posted on their walls so all customers can see why the goods or services cost what they cost. Complete financial statements are available to anyone who wants to see them — including people who want to start the same kind of business.

The idea of being open even with potential competitors is a little hard for some people to get used to. One business, a natural cosmetics store, had joined the Briarpatch and was enjoying the benefits of belonging to it. Then another cosmetics store joined the network and needed information about rents and so forth. Briarpatch coordinator Andy Alpine asked the first store to share its financial records. To his shock, the proprietors refused. (Closed books is an insult within the Briarpatch). Eventually, the first store dropped out of the network because the proprietors couldn’t embrace the Briar values…

But isn’t it dangerous to share with competitors? Briars don’t think so. Information… has a unique quality — its value increases with its abundance. For example, the more telephones that are connected to a switchboard the more valuable each telephone is. If I give information to you, both of us are better off. Keeping our financial records open helps other people to start low-cost businesses where we and our friends can buy, and openness lets other people help with advice and suggestions. Sharing of information often leads also to sharing of material things such as trucks, houses, and tools.

Involving Customers
Openness helped one Briarpatch member keep his business going. He publishes a bicycle home-repair manual and was having financial problems — he didn’t have enough money to publish a second edition. He considered taking on advertising, but was reluctant to do so because manufacturers’ ads might compromise the advice and guidance given in the manual. Finally he called a meeting of his customers, showed them his books, and frankly told them his problem. What he wanted was advice on whether to take ads; what he got was the advice — “No!” — plus financial help: several of the customers offered to co-sign a loan. Howard accepted one of these offers. The financial support was crucial — and the emotional support was an important, if unmeasurable, factor too.

The “open books” policy has made proprietors aware of their accountability to customers, clients, colleagues, and themselves. Open books indicates a personal vulnerability that makes manipulations impossible, and if you are not manipulating others, you can have closer and more productive relationships with them.

Greed and secrecy have got many traditional businesses — and governments — into trouble. Briars say that greed and secrecy have no place in the kind of business environment we want.

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