My small businesses:
- Technical consulting – Since 1985, I’ve been doing mathematical/scientific programming. Since I returned to the US in 2003, the work has been predominantly Geographic Information Systems and predominantly for government contracts. If I were more mercenary, I would probably milk this work for as much as I could as a source of freshly minted dollars. But since 2007, I’ve lost the stomach for marketing to government. I took the Paul Presidential campaign as a sign that a significant number of people besides me see government as the cause of future unrest, and I didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history. I have a few consulting projects in the private economy that might come through, but they are about an order of magnitude more difficult to get going than the government gravy train. As a result my income for this business is dropping.
- Sheep farming – My wife and I have been involved in small farming since 1995. She has a talent for working with animals and an intuitive feel for complex systems. In South Africa, we ran a goat dairy and made cheese. When we arrived in the US, we bought a 38 acre farm and grazed between two and six cattle on it, selling quarters directly to friends, family and colleagues (selling quarters instead of individual cuts avoids regulation, and butchers are happy to cut, pack, and freeze to order). We changed from beef cattle to a herd of 30-60 sheep (depending on time of year) a few years ago because it is more of a niche market. We just had our first batch prepared with USDA inspection, allowing us to sell individual cuts in accordance with regulations. We shopped for our butcher across county jurisdictions to find one able to provide the most affordable service and still satisfy our own standards of product quality (particularly a quick, low-stress killing of the animal). In spite of monolithic regulations, there is still some form of competition. Besides USDA standards, we’re also willing to provide animals for preparation according to Kosher, Halal, or personal health standards on the same terms.
- Property Development – My wife and I picked up a run down building in the business district of a small town (we probably paid less than most people pay for a car). We caused a stir in town by refusing to accept a Commonwealth provided/locally administered grant to fix up the exterior. The offer was to give us $12,000 credit toward a $24,000 bid from a contractor hired by the town. We calculated the actual materials to do the job ourselves will cost less than $1000. All the properties (this building, the farm above, and another 20 acre farm near the coffee shop) that we buy are run down and cheap and in relatively unregulated jurisdictions. We fix them up slowly and are willing to keep them as a means of production rather than try to flip them.
- Odie’s Cafe – We plan to run a coffee shop in the building with an events room at the back for music, club meetings, or markets. It’s a Web-2.0 model: customers entertain each other, and we sell them food and drink while they do it.
- Small Business/Retail Computer Services – To replace the lost revenue from the technical consulting, I’m looking at starting this business in the small town. I’ll probably partner with one or more similar companies from different towns to keep my start up costs as low as possible.
- Rock Band – My (freshly) adult sons are in two bands. There’s just enough money coming in to cover their gas and equipment costs, but they’re building a fan base and learning how to make a living doing what they love.
All of these businesses are involved with cross-selling our skills into two rural communities. The renovated building houses a cafe that sells farm produce while hosting our sons’ band. They are also network oriented: Music jams, for example, draws in other local musicians, who develop sets to perform in our venue. We swap goods with other farmers in different areas so we can cross-sell each others’ products. I share info with PC shops in other towns so we can pool our stocks and business relationships with suppliers. All focus on some fundamental needs (food, entertainment, and office productivity) and are amenable to barter, hopefully making them better able to weather economic storms ahead.
But, too many of these businesses are in the start-up phase–I feel like we are living Mises’ story of running out of bricks before my house is complete. Although our living expenses are low (our three mortgages have a lower monthly payment than most suburban houses), we need to do weekly cash-flow projections to make sure our sales can grow each of these businesses to the point they are bringing in money. The tightest resource is our time, which is why it takes me ten days to answer a pertinent question from one of my blog mates at Distributed Republic, and why it’s been six weeks since my last update at the AnCap Entrepreneur Network.