The Anti-Business Model

Many creative people believe they need to sacrifice their integrity to be in business. I propose an alternative.

Image of a man making handmade crafts

Many creative people believe they need to sacrifice their integrity to be in business. I propose an alternative.

Last night I lay in bed, and as per usual, I was thinking about work. I had been watching a Noam Chomsky talk on capitalism and the social order earlier in the evening. I wondered how each of us can go about creating work that matters, something that brings value to ourselves and others without the overbearing and often manipulative motivation to meet market need. I thought, how about working at something for the sake of it. How about finding something that lights your fire, dedicating yourself to it for its own sake, and building a business of one around it? This has been the thrust of my writing for some time now and I can’t see that changing. Today, I want to dig in to the “why” of this idea.

When I started first in business over 20 years ago, the implicit and explicit message in all advice I ever received regarding business building was; put the customer first.

Whatever the service or product, you must always have the customers needs first on your list. Ask them what they want or need, profile them, understand them, tailor your offering to what they desire most.

Find the emotional trigger and sell to that.

It’s staple advice for business owners at all levels, and for Christ’s sake, at one time I even promoted this idea.

That advice remains dominant today, and I have grown to understand that it is fundamentally flawed. It is at its core manipulative and often runs counter to our sense of humanity. In fact, in order to operate “successfully” in the world of business, we are often required to forgo our humanity.

“It’s just business”.

It’s the cart before the horse, born from the capitalist ideology that everyone can be commercially successful — you just need to work hard. Yes, of course, other people will suffer under the weight of your pursuit of commercial success, but that’s how the world works. Tough shit. It’s their own fault.

It’s “dog-eat-dog”, “survival-of-the-fittest”. It’s a 19th Century mechanical system — a Darwinian model for life.

Material things are the measure of worth, and from that comes notoriety and influence. It is as hypnotic as it is insidious, and at its most extreme, it allows us to inflict all kinds of obscenities on each other.

The standard model for business suggests that everyone who becomes self-employed wants the same thing, and the measure of your success is the degree to which you can defeat the competition. Anyone who stands in your way, and this is especially so at a corporate level, is fodder for canons.

Whether you are a painter, writer or poet, bricklayer, accountant or coffee shop owner, your business is pretty much irrelevant if you can’t grow, take on more staff, and generate more profit.

The public is complicit in this.

Forget about the psychological, emotional, social and ethical value of the work. These things are down the pecking order of importance. If you’re not making money your service doesn’t fit the model and will probably fail.

Give as little as you can for the most money.

Efficiency is key.

The capitalist model for life and work says the market is open and free, and everyone has equal opportunity. However, we all know that’s bullshit.

The truth is, the better you and your cohort are bending people’s opinion, manipulating their emotions and convincing them they need stuff they don’t, the wealthier you become.

You’re now successful.

“It (predatory capitalism) is incapable of meeting human needs that can be expressed only in collective terms, and its concept of competitive man who seeks only to maximise wealth and power, who subjects himself to market relationships, to exploitation and external authority, is antihuman and intolerable in the deepest sense”. — Noam Chomsky, On Anarchism


But I have different advice.

I want to put forward a different, perhaps an unpopular model. One that runs counter to what most of us believe is true.

You see, too many of us are at odds with our work. This is an empirical fact based on my own research. Too many of us sacrifice ourselves and our humanity for the rule of corporate capitalist law. We become machines of people.

“Computer says no”.

Coming at this with a western industrialised mind, it may seem that what I’m suggesting is idealistic and naïve.

After all, we have to function in the world in which we find ourselves. We can’t just take off into the wilderness, leave our friends, family and community and live off the grid.

Well, you could.

However, given the degree to which you and I have become accustomed to having things easy (an unfortunate and necessary byproduct of capitalist structures), it’s unlikely we’d survive.

Besides, you and I can more effective by staying in the system and working to an anti-business model.

The anti-business model means staying small. It’s vocational — a business of one. It’s a case of realising what’s always been interesting to you, that thing that draws your curiosity, and following it.

It means working for the inherent value you derive from the work and earning a fee that reflects that.

Focusing on the work for its own inherent value doesn’t mean you can’t earn money and survive, and even prosper, in the world as we know it. In fact, my view is that going this road you can’t avoid being successful.

But this success I’m talking about is not building wealth for wealth’s sake. It’s not about securing oneself in the dog eat dog world of capitalism with its extremes of wealth and poverty.

To be successful, you don’t need to grow your business beyond yourself. It will grow anyway, to the degree that you need it.

There’s no obligation on you to make a million or to be in the news.

You’re not required to write a book about how successful you have been.

I know that popular culture idolises fame and fortune, but you don’t need that. Besides, happiness doesn’t reside there.

Try it. You’ll eventually see I’m right.

With all the altruism you and millions can muster. With the best will and intent in the world, we cannot change things by force. Working from the outside in, we’re bound for conflict.

There’s no amount of praying to your God, crying over dead people, lamenting the engineering of the masses by Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos or Donald Trump, will change it. Things will just get worse.

History has shown us this.

So the only option available, the only option that is of any value, is to find that thing and immerse yourself in it. Go deep and long.

How else does the writer of a song or the painter of a portrait make something that evokes a smile?

Performance artist Marina Abramovic said in an interview once, “Because in the end you are really alone, whatever you do”.

That applies here, absolutely.

Because, despite getting lost in the drama of it all, there is nothing going on except you, except me. Your life will be over before you know it, therefore, what are you going to do with it?

You don’t know the effect your work will have on other people, and they might not even remember what it was you did for them, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.

When you make for the sake of making, they feel what you felt when you made it.

This is so important to understand. Nothing you can ever do arising from ulterior motivation can ever have lasting positive affects.

So, I promote the concept of The Anti-Business Model. It is a simple model built on the concept of a business of one; the freelancer, sole trader, human being.

Not everyone can be this, I accept that. But if you’ve made it this far into the article, then we’re on the same page. We can practice it, even if we work for other people. Being a human being means forgoing bureaucracy, being less machine-like, and moving from the inside-out rather than the outside-in.

People don’t know what they want, anyway. They only know it when it appears. Regardless, it never lasts.

Don’t build your work around what other people want, build it around what you want, that thing that interests you. Eventually, others will want to be a part of it.

Anything else is a waste of life, in my opinion.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Buckminster Fuller.

“We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognising this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.” – Richard Buckminster Fuller


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