The Briarpatch Way

Excerpt from To Be Of Use

During the seventies and eighties, two businesses I cofounded, Briarpatch Cooperative Market and Smith & Hawken, were members of the Briarpatch Network, an informal business association centered in San Francisco. The network was a group of like-minded small-business owners who shared ideas and values about business. I also cofounded a branch of the network on the San Francisco Peninsula, soon to become famous as Silicon Valley, and met weekly with small local businesses at Jesse Cool’s Late for the Train restaurant in Menlo Park. We were a thriving community that shared expertise and resources in the best tradition of mutual aid, and that periodically got together to square dance and whoop it up.

One key to Briarpatch values was the ability to live on less. By participating in a community that supported and valued frugality and rejected the symbols of material success and conformity that demanded one’s participation in their acquisition, we gained the freedom to experiment with alternative ways of doing business. In short, changing the rules of the game made the game a lot more fun. Radical political analysis had taught us the direct connection between the bombs we were dropping on other people in Vietnam and the materialist addictions of our culture. But rather than just protesting and picketing, we were creating new, alternative models for human livelihood. Along with these values, we embraced voluntary simplicity in our personal habits, living conditions, and buying patterns, which made it possible to focus less time on generating income to pay the bills. Crucial to living and working simply is the support of a community whose values we can, in return, admire and support. It includes the practical sharing of mutual needs and resources. Rather than each member storing a growing heap of possessions in the garage or storage unit, the community itself became the repository of items not immediately needed, with objects circulated through active exchange and barter.

The Briarpatch Society was conceptualized in 1973 by Dick Raymond, a Harvard Business School graduate who gave up a successful conventional business career to create small nonprofits and other ventures, including the Portola Institute, a catalyst for several community-based groups and the first publisher of the revolutionary Whole Earth Catalog.

The Briarpatch Society consisted of people learning to “live with joy in the cracks,” Raymond says in The Briarpatch Book. “But, more particularly, if you are positively oriented and doing (or actively seeking) Right Livelihood, even willing to fail young, and concerned with the sharing of resources and skills with members of an ongoing community (or affinity group), and especially if you see yourself as part of a subsociety that is more committed to ‘learning how the world works’ than to acquiring possessions and status, then you must be a Briar.”

Dick’s Briarpatch idea grew out of a time of doom and gloom, social tumult, value questioning, and high unemployment; a time when the demise of big business seemed imminent. He saw the giant corporate dinosaurs unable to find food for their enormous profit-oriented appetites. He visualized a business apocalypse. He envisioned the Briarpatch as the social system for survival. Briars would use the tools of living on less, sharing with each other, and learning through new small businesses. To this, Dick added the positive value of doing it all with joy. In his vision, Briars were to be doing what they loved most, secure from the ravages of the crumbling culture around them. Their lack of material possessions and small-scale living would appear to others like real briar patches—thorny places so unappealing to the greedy people around them that, like Brer Rabbit, Briars would be safe.

Another key for many of us was, and still is, the Buddhist concept of “right livelihood” —not right in the sense of conforming to a definition of right versus wrong, but right in that each of us is unique and has a distinctive contribution to make that is right for us and right for the community we participate in. New models of living and working that hearkened back to the utopians of previous generations appealed to our values and enthusiasm for experimentation. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was popular reading, and the philosophy of Dick’s hobbit-like Briarpatch Society repudiated and replaced the values of the society we were disillusioned with. Briarpatch values continue to live in many hearts, and some of its management practices have been successfully incorporated in businesses far and wide. The Briarpatch Network still lives on in the San Francisco Bay area, and a Briarpatch Cooperative Market still thrives in Grass Valley, California.

The seventies predictions of devastating energy shortages were only briefly manifest, and the giant corporate MegaMaws are still gulping down large swatches of business terrain, expanding into all the world to preach the gospel of raw capitalism. The day of reckoning has been postponed, yet the signs of serious difficulties ahead continue to be manifest.

Briarpatch Management
For Briarpatch businesses, mutual aid and the free exchange of knowledge and equipment allow small businesses to open with very little capital. Some of them have also been financed by their customers through direct public offerings (DPOs) and other innovative financing.

Central to Briarpatch values of openness and sharing is the practice of Open Book Management that Business Professor Douglas McGregor promoted in his research and books. Indeed, Briarpatch businesses took the concept further than McGregor would have imagined. Unlike the financial statements of publicly traded corporations that, by law, publish summaries of their finances for investors, the Briarpatch concept of open books means that the everyday bookkeeping of the company is available to employees, customers, neighbors, and competitors. Anyone can walk into a Briarpatch business (not all Briarpatch businesses choose to participate in this) and ask to see the books. You can find out not only what the income and expenses of the business are, but also (horror of horrors) what the owners and employees take in salary, how much the company is spending for advertising and with whom they spend it, how much is paid in taxes, and so on. Every line item is available for scrutiny. This practice comes from the idea that a business is responsible to the community it serves. Its wage structure and resource allocation should be justifiable; the business practices it espouses should be verifiable.

This sounds pretty radical today, but up until the late 1800s, all corporate behavior was subject to political control through their state representatives. States created the corporate charters that companies operated under and could revoke them if a company did not fulfill its chartered purpose. Originally included in corporate charters, which were granted for a specific number of years, were their responsibilities to the communities they were in. Government authorities, representing the interests of the community, inspected the books and called companies to task for any misdeeds that violated their charter. But that is no more. Just as some of the founding fathers of our country feared, corporate power and money have eclipsed the power of our citizens to demand good citizenship. MegaMaws have now underhandedly gained the legal rights of individual citizens, to the detriment of our democratic ideals and values.
See also Right Livelihood
… and Open Books
… and History of the Briarpatch Network


Good. Bringing back memories of a that hope for change. Although we still have the gloom, social tumult, value questioning and high unemployment with the giant corporations unable to find food for their unending appetites. Now they have learned how to raid the taxpayers even more and want to rule the world to get cheap labor.
I was working with a group called Farallones Design and remember going to Death Valley with Ant Farm to help Stewart Brand put out what was called “The Last Whole Earth Catalog”. We installed huge inflatables for the crew to work in. I”ll never forget Stewart’s words as he said when it was over: “We’ll leave this place better than when we came here…” Respect the earth. We did.

Just a word on the history of the corporation. The end of public supervision of corporations was the Dartmouth decision of the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Marshall (source of the doctrine that it is the Court’s duty to decide which laws are constitutional), which argued that, because the charter was a “contract,” the state could not just up and revise or revoke it. Corporations, said Marshall, are formed to manage their property and have the right to do so without risk of termination. Corporations, enthused Marshall, were more or less persons but persons endowed with “immortality”. Marshall’s Court, already at the threshold of the nineteenth century, marks the end of public accountability for corporations. We have a lot of history — and Supreme Court jurisprudence — to undo.