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.

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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

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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?

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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.