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The radical subversiveness of building a “lifestyle business”

The radical subversiveness of building a “lifestyle business”

Let’s talk about the value that so-called lifestyle businesses contribute, above and beyond pure profit.

What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power. Nothing much of lasting value ever happens at the head table, held together by a familiar rhetoric. Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves.
— Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table

My first business was a boutique web design and development agency. A couple of years into building a consistently and increasingly profitable agency, my co-founder and I learned that our kind of company had a name: it was a “lifestyle business.”

We heard the term for the first time at a party where a local entrepreneur with big ambitions (and vanishingly little evidence that his product was likely to succeed) loudly declared to everyone within earshot, “If you’re not growing, you’re dying!”

Now, we had deliberately built a business that defied that imperative; we didn’t believe business success depended on scaling up. Instead, we were focused on maintaining a consistent profit margin, continuing to do meaningful work for great clients, maintaining a healthy and happy work environment, and having lives outside of work.

So one of us — I can’t recall who, at this point — shot back that growth alone might not be the most useful metric, so long as the business was profitable and sustaining itself. And in reply, he sneered:

“Yeah, I mean, if all you want is a lifestyle business, then I guess you can afford to think about growth that way.”

The tone was so snide and dismissive that I immediately grasped the meaning behind the term, even though I’d not heard it before.

A lifestyle business is just about maintaining your lifestyle — not changing the world.

A lifestyle business is just a hobby dressed up like a real enterprise.

A lifestyle business doesn’t scale because its owners don’t know how to scale a business.

At that moment, I realized three things:

  1. That dude was an idiot.
  2. I hate the phrase “lifestyle business.”
  3. But… I love the way so-called lifestyle businesses piss off guys like him.

……………

The principal horror of any system which defines the good in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, or which defines human need to the exclusion of the psychic and emotional components of that need — the principal horror of such a system is that it robs our work of its erotic value, its erotic power and life appeal and fulfillment. Such a system reduces work to a travesty of necessities, a duty by which we earn bread or oblivion for ourselves and those we love. But this is tantamount to blinding a painter and then telling her to improve her work, and to enjoy the act of painting. It is not only next to impossible, it is also profoundly cruel.
 — Audre Lorde, “The Uses of the Erotic: Erotic as Power” (emphasis mine)

Lifestyle businesses upset people who are building, y’know, real businesses, for a bunch of reasons. When you build yourself a successful lifestyle business, you’re asserting some radical notions that blow pretty strongly on the capitalist house of cards these bros keep building:

  • You’re demonstrating that you don’t actually have to work all the time in order to have a sense of purpose.
  • You’re living proof that one can prioritize care and nurturance (of self, others, world) alongside paid work.
  • Your business stands in opposition to the economic philosophy of unlimited, rapid growth as a healthy standard.
  • You stand for enough-ness and simplicity.
  • You assert that accruing power for its own sake is a losing game.

You might not be doing all of those things, but I contend that many of us who build lifestyle businesses do so because we agree with Audre Lorde that there are human needs beyond profit, and there is life beyond duty.

The older I get, the more radical I think that is.

 

Photo by Kristina Balić on Unsplash

Just look at this totally not-scalable handmade soap. I mean, the carbon footprint is probably incredibly low (minimal, reusable/recyclable packaging, likely sold locally), but where’s the hockey-stick growth, man? Photo by Kristina Balić on Unsplash

……………

Finding a definition for “lifestyle business” is tricky.** For starters, it’s easily confused with a “lifestyle brand,” which is another thing entirely. (Think: brands that are trying to sell you something that promises access to an aspirational lifestyle.) But it’s also slippery because it exists largely as a counterpoint to no-holds-barred, growth-for-growth’s-sake capitalism.

The key distinction between a lifestyle business and other businesses is that a lifestyle business exists for some purpose beyond maximizing profits.

That purpose could be anything from the owners’ autonomy, to providing good jobs to its employees, to supporting authors and literature (like your local bookseller), reducing waste (like this gem of a shop), to <ahref=”https://drawingchange.com/”>helping groups of people solve big problems more skillfully. Lifestyle businesses are profitable, and growth-oriented in a different way: profit is the fuel for the overall purpose, not the entire point.

The flip side — the dominant business culture that promotes rapid growth and massive scale — has fostered an environment where many businesses are assessed by it measures. Awards celebrate the fastestgrowing companies; media coverage skews towards IPOs and stock markets (and CEOs who make so much money they can’t imagine anything else to do with it than fund space travel); and the whole venture capital world is built to cultivate more businesses that fit this mold.

That leaves the rest of us — the so-called lifestyle business owners — without much recognition, without a shared language about how we approach business, and frequently with a nagging sense that we’re somehow not “real” entrepreneurs, whether that’s because our peers are jibing at us over drinks, or simply because we don’t see as many examples of entrepreneurs who prioritize things beyond quarterly reports, pitch decks, and balance sheets.

I want to change that. I want to hear the stories of small business owners who bring their values to work, who think about contribution, justice and impact as they’re developing their business plans.

potter at the wheel

I would argue that craft is itself, a substantial contribution to humanity. As is the sheer sensual joy of working with our hands. Photo by SwapnIl Dwivedi on Unsplash

Looking back at my own entrepreneurial experience, it’s clear to me that there’s genuinely revolutionary potential in doing business the way my co-founder and I did. We built a sustainable, consistently profitable company, eventually supporting nine full-time staff, while prioritizing reasonable work weeks, working with world-changing clients, and building capacity internally and externally.

In redefining the standard definitions of business growth to promote the kinds of growth we found most meaningful, we put our stake in the ground about what we believed business was good for.

Not just profit. Not just scale. Not just feeding the consumption beast.

As it turns out, many other entrepreneurs feel the same way. But it goes way beyond lifestyle considerations. It’s about what we value. It’s about what we want to see grow. And it’s about creating spaces in the world where livelihood and life are in closer alignment.

That probably doesn’t sound all that radical. I mean, ours was a for-profit enterprise, using a pretty standard fee-for-service business model, with a conventional ownership model in a capitalist system.

We didn’t fit, quite, into any of the “progressive business” categories. We were too small for corporate social responsibility, too profit-oriented to be a social enterprise, and the whole “social innovation” bandwagon hadn’t really left the station yet.

But we were committed to doing business a little differently. And for us and our employees, that made a world of difference. For instance:

  • If someone had to work overtime, they took the equivalent time off as soon as humanly possible.
  • When one of our employees adopted a puppy, they worked from home for a while so they could potty-train her.
  • When people had kids, we topped up their parental leave benefits as much as we could afford to. (This was in Canada, where full-time employees are usually entitled to about 50% of their salary through government assistance, during their parental leave.)

We prioritized care. We prioritized making room for our whole selves. We prioritized having lives outside of work. We prioritized longevity over quick bucks.

What’s radical about that is that it is not the status quo.

It ought to be, but it’s not.

We celebrate big businesses when they institute policies that make their workplaces a little more humane, but when small businesses do it?

Lifestyle business.

Gardening

You are still a real entrepreneur if you make time to garden, make art, nurture relationships, rest, care for your body and soul, volunteer for community causes, and/or generally live at a human pace and scale. Photo by Lewis Wilson on Unsplash

……………

Part of me wants to reclaim the damned phrase, because that’s what we do when a phrase is used to sneer at us.

But I just hate the word “lifestyle” so much. In part I hate it because it’s inextricably linked with that section of the newspaper that used to be called the women’s pages (because of course men don’t care about fashion, cooking, or their fellow humans), and the least substantial and most dominant-culture-reinforcing dreck on Instagram.

It reeks of superficiality, and the businesses we are building are anything but superficial. We are building for sustainability, for life-as-it-actually-is (because we know the Ideal Worker doesn’t really exist), and for respect and mutuality.

These values fly in the face of the extraction economy that is literally and figuratively killing us.

Do we want to keep building businesses that extract more value than they create? Or do we want to figure out a better kind of commerce?

……………

If you’re interested in the questions I’ve raised here, stay tuned: there’s lots more to come. I’ve been reading and mulling and talking to other entrepreneurs about how we can shift — and are shifting — the economy into a more humane, and less damaging, mode.

I know there are people out there thinking more radically than I am about capitalism, and how to totally upend it. I’m a pragmatist, and while I think there may well be a better world coming, I do my best work around what we can do in the meantime. So I’m collecting ideas and stories about what small businesses can do to rethink status quo capitalism. And I’ll be sharing them here, and via my newsletter, which you can sign up for below.

Honour your ick.

Honour your ick.

One of my clients is starting a business and she just can’t summon the energy to create the “lead magnet” (AKA free resource) that’s supposed to entice people to join her mailing list. Another knows he should be networking more, but hates the typical gatherings where elevator pitches and business card exchanges are the only things on the menu. Another is struggling with pricing, and longs to find a happy medium between “charging what you’re worth” (which — have you noticed? — always seems to mean “top dollar”) and giving it all away (and thereby abandoning financial stability). And all of them are feeling the pressure to grow big and grow fast.

We all have moments where the accepted wisdom of business — extract as much value as you can; give away as little as possible in return; leave your complexity at home; and scale up as quickly as you’re able — just. Feels. Gross.

It feels gross because it doesn’t respect your humanity or your customer’s.

The freebie might sound generous, but in practice it can be a form of manipulation, a way to trick people into signing up for yet another newsletter they’ll never read.

When you find yourself resisting the “accepted wisdom” of business, it might just be that you’re itching for a new kind of economy — and a new kind of wisdom.

There are ways to make the freebie fun, easy, genuinely generous. Just look at Shenee Howard’s name quiz or Alexandra Franzen’s page of freebies.

And, if you don’t want to create a lead magnet, don’t! (Hey, if a no-freebie newsletter sign-up is good enough for Paul Jarvis, it’s good enough for the rest of us. He literally teaches list-building.)

This is what I call honouring your ick.

That shiver up your spine, that queasy feeling in your stomach when you think about doing business the way everyone else does? It’s trying to tell you something: there is a better way.

And you get there by honouring your ick.

“Networking” sucks, as you well know.

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash.

Actual photo of me at every networking event ever. Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash.

I’ve taught workshops on networking for people who hate networking. I wrote a chapter inn my book on it, too. My point is, I have a lot to say on this subject. But the gist of it is this:the reason you hate networking events is that most of them are dehumanizing. The people who go there are faking it and it shows — and they expect you to fake it, too. Ugh.

So instead of “networking,” just show up in the places where your people hang out. And by “your people,” I mean the folks who wind up being your very favourite customers of all time. The people who make your heart sing to work with. THOSE people.

The reason you feel gross when you go to the soul-deadening network events is because they are soul-deadening for everyone. It’s just that some people believe that deadening their soul is a prerequisite for business.

It’s not.

Honour your ick. And go hang with your people instead.

Growth doesn’t always lead to bigness.

Look, I get as excited as the next person by measurable goals and upticks in profitability. But does the world really need more entities that see increasing their revenues, customer base, and/or number of employees as the only viable ways to grow?

We call those things measures of success — but too often, we measure only what we are extracting from the ecosystem our business belongs to, and not what we are contributing back. When we measure growth only in extractive terms, we are seeing only one facet of our business’s impact. We aren’t calculating other forms of contribution, and neither are we measuring costs beyond the financial ones.

I come back again and again to Tim O’Reilly’s advice to entrepreneurs, to “create more value than you capture.” Most of the small business owners I know try to do just that — but the dominant culture within business can wear us down. We see so many companies playing a gluttonous, zero-sum game that it can feel like you have to keep hustling just to stay relevant.

But the fact is, our addiction to rapid, exponential growth is literally killing the earth. And it’s killing us. We are overworked and burnt out. Economic inequality is growing as businesses race to maximize profits at the expense of their workers’ and suppliers’ wellbeing. We are consuming resources at horrifying rates.

We need to be cultivating our sense of enough-ness.

Yellow water lilies

Sometimes the most significant growth happens beneath the surface. Photo by Tsippendale on Pixabay.

It is enough to build a business that sustains you. It is enough to celebrate your wins with your inner circle and forget about the press coverage. It is enough to grow in ways that are invisible to the outer world.

Maybe your business growth plan this year involves taking more vacation, personal time, or family care leave than you did last year. Maybe it looks like developing a new offering and finding the right product-market fit for it. Maybe you’re investing in some professional development, or bringing on a VA or some other form of help.

Maybe it looks like downsizing (AKA right-sizing), because you’ve learned that you don’t actually want to manage a bigger team.

Maybe your fear of growth is truly avoidance of your potential to be a great leader; maybe it’s fear of success; or maybe, it’s genuinely fear of betraying your true definition of growth.

Uh-oh. I just went there.

Yeah, so here’s the thing. “Honour your ick,” like most advice, has some limitations.

We should all honour the part of us that recoils from truly icky stuff, right? That seems right and good.

But yeah, OK. There is another “ick” that shows up sometimes, and that’s the playing-small ick, the “But I’ve never” ick, the “Who am I to?” ick. (That’s the part of us that would keep our prices close to zero, forever. And keep us from ever trying to expand our customer base. And certainly, shut down every marketing effort we might imagine.)

That ick is bullshit. So we can’t JUST honour our icks. We need to practice discernment about our ick.

Sometimes our ick is telling us, “Hey! If you do this thing, you will be betraying your values of X, Y, and Z.” And sometimes it’s just being an asshole.

We can discern the difference by asking questions like:

  • What about this makes me feel icky?
  • What’s the tone and texture of what I’m feeling? Is it more anxious and avoidant, or resistant and rebellious? What does that typically mean for me?
  • When I am a customer and a company I buy from employs this strategy (e.g. the mailing list freebie, changing their pricing), how do I prefer that they approach it? Can I think of some examples that I really liked?
  • What are the alternatives I’m considering?
  • If I release the “shoulds” and status-quo thinking (i.e. “the way things are,” “what successful people/businesses do”), what do I really want?

Your ick has something to tell you: about the status quo of capitalism, about your values, about the aspects of your work that chafe–and about how there’s a way to be true to yourself, and more humane, while running a business.

Listen up.

 


If you’re interested in the questions I’ve raised here, stay tuned: there’s lots more to come. I’ve been reading and mulling and talking to other entrepreneurs about how we can shift — and are shifting — the economy into a more humane, and less damaging, mode.

I know there are people out there thinking more radically than I am about capitalism, and how to totally upend it. I’m a pragmatist, and while I think there may well be a better world coming, I do my best work around what we can do in the meantime. So I’m collecting ideas and stories about what small businesses can do to rethink status quo capitalism. And I’ll be sharing them here, and via my newsletter, which you can sign up for below.

Make it small.

Make it small.

There’s been a recurring theme lately in my conversations with clients, and it’s this:

“How can you take that big idea, and make it smaller?”

Don’t misunderstand me: I want you to dream big, huge dreams! Let yourself, and your ideas, take up alllll the space.

It’s just that there comes a moment when you know it’s time to actually start. And when that moment comes, I see so many of you freeze. Overwhelm sets in. The big-ness of your dream feels oppressive, all of a sudden. Yikes.

(I experience this too. All the time. You know I write these posts as reminders for myself, right?)

So that moment – the moment you freeze, and begin to feel your body and mind contract – is the moment when it’s time to ask, “How can I make this smaller?”

In the tech entrepreneur world, we call this “designing an MVP” – a Minimum Viable Product. Alexandra Franzen recently sang the praises of tiny projects, and shared an inspiring list of incredibly feasible creative ideas.

Same deal, different packaging. The point is: when the task feels daunting, make it smaller and achievable.

Maybe it’s going to be a book eventually – but today, it’s a blog post.

Maybe it’s going to be a career change, eventually – but today, it’s reaching out to someone whose work inspires you to schedule an informational interview.

Maybe it’s going to be a thing you can’t quite picture yet – but today, it’s tuning into the joy of your own passion for it and asking yourself, “What’s the most exciting next step I can take?”

Take the contraction you feel, and listen to what it’s really saying. Not, “too big to attempt” but rather, “too big to tackle all at once.”

Find the small opening, and start there.

 

Photo by John Allen on Unsplash

 

Hi. I'm Lauren.

I'm a seasoned tech entrepreneur and author who asks a lot of questions. I offer strategy and coaching for creatives, entrepreneurs, and accidental bosses who want to infuse more joy, curiosity, and ease into their lives and work – and create growth that has meaning and purpose. More about me…

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