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Is Business An Art?

August 8, 2014
by Melanie Cheng



Recently, I was talking with two friends who say that it’s not. One works for a leading commercial design manufacturer (what I’ll call a business around art), and the other works at SAP (business) and has a professional photography career (art) on the side.

Starting a business is fricken hard, and maintaining a successful business is just as hard. (Btw, if you don’t believe these basic assumptions, read about the daily 99% bad-decision rate of CEOs – especially successful ones – and how rare it is to create a company that lasts.)

And yet, these friends tell me that business may be difficult and require ingenuity, but ultimately you’re just navigating and optimizing life in the box. The business world box.

Especially as an entrepreneur, there are so many opportunities for failure as you learn and evolve to find your footing. To me, running your own business is absolutely an art – constantly calibrating your vision vs reality, what your ‘customers’ or ‘clients’ say that want vs what they actually need, what will make money vs what will make an impact, what you personally enjoy vs what is best for business viability, and managing human resources who are volatile complex beings by nature.

Screen Shot 2014-08-08 at 11.28.24 AMBut, perhaps, this orchestration is simply an act and exercise in engineering, not art. Engineering all these moving parts to work together seamlessly and effortlessly.

And yet, I think that even engineering – the most elegant and creative engineering – can transcend the boring and actually be beautiful. In fact, I just met with the owner of a design firm who said that some of his contractors just delivered some wireframes for an intricate and complex application, which were so well-done and so brilliantly executed that they literally made him cry.

So, I’m contending that art is defined by beauty, and that the way that business can be engineered and executed can in fact be beautiful. And, thus, it can be art.

Which brings up the next question: How to engineer business in more beautiful ways? What would make a business beautiful? My thoughts at the moment:

  • Operating lean: doing (a lot) more with less
  • Joy among the team: true happiness on a human level
  • Impact: doing good for the world while also making money
  • Collaboration: integrating models that ‘raise the tide for all boats’ in an industry; down w/ the one-winner model
  • Empowerment: of customers, clients, staff, board, executives, partners, everyone…
  • Innovation: expanding minds to new possibilities and more creativity
  • Community: fostering caring human bonds and relationships
  • Sustainability: honoring and protecting the most abundant art around us, Mother Nature

That would be beautiful. I think that integrating all these things is the ultimate Michelangelo of business.

Toss those Voter Info Pamphlets?

July 4, 2014

voterinfoI recently met Patrick Valentino, spokesperson against San Francisco’s Proposition B in the June 2014 election, which mandates that any proposed waterfront building exceeding height limits must be approved by public vote. I’ve always spoken out against the development of high-rises blocking the view for the rest of the city, but after chatting with Patrick about the details; seeing that SPUR, SF Chronicle, League of Conservation Voters, Parks Alliance, SF Democratic Party, Housing Action Coalition, the Labor Council, and others also opposed Prop B; and then listening to the NPR debate about Prop B, I’m more confused than ever about the truth, and what’s best for the city as its population grows.

Sometimes there is obvious propaganda from evil-doers this is unfortunately effective (flashbacks to Monsanto’s multi-million dollar ad campaign right before Prop 37‘s predicted landslide, which turned the expected win for labeling GMOs into a loss).

But often, it’s hard for even informed citizens to differentiate fact from propaganda. Why is it so hard for us to get complete info? We get the Voter Information Pamphlets in the mail, but they’re so incomplete and so often skewed, they don’t really help. Personally, I end up tossing them in the trash recycling.

Currently, the only hope for us to vote intelligently is to:

  • Spend a lot of time researching every candidate and every proposition ourselves – Veto: unrealistic.
  • Read the Voter Information Pamphlets – Veto: skewed, limited and/or bad-quality info.
  • Go by organizations’ endorsements – All We’ve Got: binary thumbs up or thumbs down.

What if we had a single place online (calling which provided one, easily-navigable, easily-scannable database of all the candidates and propositions, and allowed citizens to see right there in one place which organizations and businesses endorsed each of them AS WELL AS short paragraphs of a standardized length written by each endorsing entity containing qualitative, descriptive reasoning behind their endorsement or opposition AND one or two links to supporting resources for more information.

Then, each organization wouldn’t need to spend the time and money trying to publicize their positions (which is totally inefficient anyway), and could instead focus on their core program work (which is undercapitalized across the board for nonprofits already). And then we citizens would actually be able to get the info we need to make informed choices, whether that means a quick scan of endorsers if we’re time-pressed, or more thorough research of resources recommended by trusted endorsing entities.

Wow, that would be huge, and it’s not even hard to build.

It’s amazing how little progress we’ve made as far as creating learning channels for citizens to get the information they need to vote.  Listening to an hour-long NPR show about each issue and still be confused is not good.

Let’s do this!

Consumer Brands for Place-Based Fair Trade

March 2, 2014
Peruvian alpaca

Top-quality wool: Peruvian alpaca

Yesterday I met a woman from Boulder, Colorado who told me about a new branding initiative to support the growing fair trade sustainable textiles & handcrafts movement. The same organization/coalition that promoted the “925” stamp for quality silver jewelry in Mexico is creating some sort of stamp of authenticity for Peruvian products made from their regional alpaca and sheep wool.

Then, we naive tourists – especially when visiting these regions ourselves – know to look for and value the products made from quality wool, and thus our dollars go back to the people who produce the real thing. And then ultimately, people from Peru who create these amazing products following age-old traditions may preserve their cultural heritage. Hooray. Success.

For the past many years, I rarely buy synthetic fabrics anyway – not because of the sustainability factor – but because they just don’t feel as good, they fall apart faster, or they simply don’t work (tried an acrylic scarf?).

I’m excited and inspired to see people who are thinking about the concept of place with the concept of fair trade. I’m not sure yet how it will grow in the marketplace or in various tourist destinations. i.e. Will shoppers just care about fair trade alpaca wool, or will they seek out the upcoming Peruvian brand of fair trade wool because they understand the economic and cultural impacts for the Peruvian people in buying those specific products?

Obviously, there will need to be a lot of education of both shop keepers and tourists to make any new brand meaningful, and regulators to enforce its integrity.

As usual, it’s hard to identify the ‘best’ answer or silver bullet. There’s also Fiber Shed, which is all about finding/wearing clothes that are made from local fibers, local dyes and local labor from Your region. Eat local, dress local? At first, it was a bit too idealistic for me, but then I realized it actually does mirror the regional food movement in that it’s all about environmental sustainability and economic development.

I guess we can buy Peruvian alpaca for cultural preservation, and we can also buy locally made designs for our community’s own cultural development. And, then in our extra time (ahem), track all other suppliers by using the Sustainable Apparel Coalition‘s Higg Index covering the “environmental and social impacts of apparel and footwear products across the product lifecycle and throughout the value chain.”

I look forward to hearing more how folks in this textile, clothing and handcraft movement support regions around the world economically, while also preserving heritage artisan culture.

Celebrating Hands-On Benevolence

December 24, 2013

When the western world is so resentful of the “self-serving 1%”, it’s refreshing to hear about someone with ample means not only choosing to contribute financially to improving the world but actually taking a hands-on, hard-working role in making it happen.  I think that everyone, especially other wealthy 1% people, would benefit from hearing more and more often about those who are being a bit more proactive with their money, mind, creativity and influence.

Screen Shot 2013-12-24 at 11.37.48 AM

Chronicle Books: good for humanity

I bring this up after hearing about the owner of Chronicle Books, Nion McEvoy, the (wealthy) great-grandson of M.H. de Young, founder of the SF Chronicle and of whom the De Young Museum is named in honor.  He could have done anything with his time, brain and his funds, but he chose to buy Chronicle Books from a former Chronicle exec and make it focus on what he deemed important: quality of life and lifestyle. I think that most everyone has seen and loves Chronicle Books.  They’re eye-catching and crowd-pleasers.  This is shown in their mission: “Inspired by the enduring magic and importance of books, our objective is to create and distribute exceptional publishing that’s instantly recognizable for its spirit, creativity, and value.”  They publish imho seminal, fun books about life as a human (see above).  I think that’s an important niche!

What I loved most about hearing about McEvoy is that a) he wanted to take a hands-on role in running the company.  And b) even though their Photography books are apparently the worst performers in their list, he personally feels it’s important for humanity to know and learn about, so he continues publishing and pushing it.  This might not seem that noteworthy, but I think it actually is.  How many other wealthy folks choose to simply invest or donate to causes instead of doing the work?  How many companies are driven only by their bottom line and share-holders to “trim the fat”.  Ditch anything not bringing in the biggest ROI.  How many would ditch the Photography list?  How much of what we value in the world (like aesthetics and quality of life) are de-prioritized by the fewer and fewer choices we have in products and services offered by big companies?

It would be great for us all to be made aware of and celebrate those who have the capital and influence to do the right thing and are doing it themselves…like Nion McEvoy.  Or, like Jeff Skoll, who made his billions from eBay but then, instead of just becoming a serial investor/single-bottom-line money maker, he founded the Skoll Foundation, which contributes over $80 million in grants each year to social entrepreneurs “dedicated to solving the world’s most pressing problems”,  and Participant Media, which has produced over 50 films about social, environmental and cultural issues, including An Inconvenient Truth, The Cove, Food Inc.Lincoln, and many more.

To [make] the change we wish to see, I think that we need to empower those with the funds and influence (ie the 1%) with examples and role models of their peers who are stepping up, getting their hands dirty, and making it real.  Maybe this kind of book “Celebrating Hands-On Benevolence” could be published by Chronicle Books?  :)  I know a few other hands-on, hard-working benevolent wealthy individuals who don’t share very broadly the good work they’re doing, when they really should.

Honoring Historical Architecture In A Changing City

September 8, 2013

Lately I find myself continually referencing an article from The Urbanist magazine (published by SPUR*) called “Adapt, Transform, Reuse”.  It outlines how a city can modernize to accommodate an evolving population, while still honoring and preserving historical architecture and aesthetics.

“New buildings can help reinforce older urban forms and old buildings can be re-imagined to serve new uses. It is the juxtaposition of old and new that gives cities their interesting corners, their urban surprises, their texture.

Adaptive Reuse: The Ferry Building

Adaptive Reuse: The Ferry Building

Imagine a city where time has stopped — no new buildings are allowed to be built, and the ones that do exist must retain their original use. Such a city would lose its vitality due to lack of change.

Imagine another city where no old buildings or forms are retained— everything is torn down and built new. This second city would also lack vitality but for another reason — because it has no history, no soul.”

In an era of keeping costs to the bare minimum and profits to the absolute maximum, developers notoriously cut corners with simple, cookie-cutter, ugly design and uber-cheap materials.  This makes for really ugly, soul-less cities and communities.

So, clearly, there is an opportunity and need to create beautiful integrations of old and new.  The question is simply (haha) how much old and how much new.  “People have passionate feelings about their environment, sometimes expressed as a love for the buildings or landscapes that currently surround them, other times as a desire for change.”  You will be hard-pressed to find design solutions that make everyone happy.

Nonetheless, assuming there is compromise from both historians and modernists, The Urbanist article outlines key ways that we can bring new life to old buildings to accommodate the ever-changing city:

Adaptive Reuse — when old buildings are repurposed for a use that they were not originally designed to serve.
Example: the SF Ferry Building on the waterfront turned into foodie mecca marketplace.
Incorporation: Original African Hall within the rebuilt California Academy of Sciences

Incorporation: Original African Hall within the rebuilt California Academy of Sciences

Incorporation — when elements of old buildings are incorporated into new buildings.This category includes spolia (when bits and pieces of buildings are preserved), facadism (when the facade of a historic structure is retained but the rest of the building is replaced) and encapsulation (when a historic building is kept in its original location but surrounded on all sides with newer, bigger construction).
Example: the original, beloved African hall from the original California Academy of Sciences building incorporated into the 2008 modern, LEED-certified museum reconstruction all around it.
Juxtaposition — when something new responds to, but does not mimic the old. The contrast between old and new defines and amplifies the qualities of both.  This can be seen in additions to existing buildings, in infill construction within a historic context and in the relationship of new buildings to older urban forms such as alleys or piers.
Examples: The Contemporary Jewish Museum cubic addition and inside remodel.  And, Mint Plaza’s modern plaza among historic architecture.
Juxtaposition: Contemporary Jewish Museum

Juxtaposition: Contemporary Jewish Museum

Juxtaposition: Mint Plaza

Juxtaposition: Mint Plaza

So, there you have it: Honoring historical architecture and design 101.  Yep, old and new can co-exist.  Modern hip design can accentuate historical city-soulful design, and vice-versa.  I’ve heard that The Urbanist‘s publisher SPUR* has done a great job at helping advise developers and the city planning commission to ensure we keep these principles in mind.  I’m so grateful San Francisco has such a kick-ass organization doing great work.

SPUR actually just opened a San Jose brick-and-mortar headquarters as well.  Oh, if only they had done that in the 1970s, I bet we wouldn’t have the atrocity of ugliness and paved-over prime farmland that is Silicon Valley.  Better late than never!

And, if we could get suburbia (aka the land of Maxi-Malls) to adopt these principles as well…

For details and more examples on the methods above, read the complete “Adapt, Transform, Reuse” article from The Urbanist.

SF Planning & Urban Research Association.

Education & Learning Systems: the holy grail to save the world?

August 29, 2013
by Melanie Cheng

knowledgeispowerI’m going to go on a limb and say that Education and Learning Systems – reform, methodologies, and  application to all sectors – are going to be at least partially the holy grail for saving this f’d up world (does that sound negative?).

When the world’s systemic problems are so complex and solutions are even more elusive, it’ll depend on much more effectively sharing knowledge among those working in each sector to devise high-impact strategies, and designing new education platforms and methods to disseminate this valuable information to those who need it: the media, those with capital, and, ultimately, the commons.

Until then, I think all of this change-making will keep going a bit slowwwwwww.   Through intelligent dissemination of knowledge, we can empower the 99% and accelerate progress!  I hope that someday Catalyst Commons can expand and grow to help in that regard.

Who else is working on new learning systems for this purpose?   I would love to learn more.

When will we reap what we sow?

August 26, 2013
by Melanie Cheng

I wrote this in 2011, but am posting it here after being inspired by Antoine Moore’s comments to “How to become a Change Maker?  Can you be transparent & co-creative AND make money?

No, but really…

I’ve been a part of the extended “Next Edge” community for over a year, and something is seriously wrong when this incredible pool of hyper-intelligent, accomplished, generous individuals are typically making much, much less than they did or could in the corporate world.

It makes perfect sense that the prevalent single-bottom-line society would pay well since it’s all about the money, but c’mon.

There are undoubtedly many reasons for this trend fact that most do-gooders are poor, but these come to mind right now:

  • The industry of “change-making” (read: improving the world vs destroying it) is undercapitalized.  The End.  Ok, there’s more…
  • People who voluntarily leave the high-paying corporate world to “do good work” are obviously not as driven by money and therefore don’t demand equivalent pay.
  • Many of us who’ve been in the space for a while are traumatized by difficult fundraising experiences, and therefore undersell ourselves to just close the deal.  “Hey! For the bargain price of $89,999, our team of six will work full-time for a year!”
  • The community of change-sector consultants and workers are a kind of extended group of friends who are tight-knit, friendly, and typically spiritually and/or emotionally and/or psychologically aware.   This is not an easy environment to demand ask each other nicely for more money, even if we know we’re worth it.
  • Foundations, impact investors and individuals don’t have systems or metrics to analyze change-sector funding opportunities and their impact.  Thus, they resort to “blind” charity-vibed contributions (regardless of whether they are literally charity donations or patient capital donations investments).  Thus, the “change-making industry” is [sub-]consciously viewed as one big monster charity initiative instead of a lucrative business opportunity.  Sure, there likely won’t be a major exit like a venture capital investment, but there is still money to be made doing good.  Thus, founders and execs often make less because they’re seen as quasi-social workers who notoriously have made and sadly may continue to make peanuts.

I’m sure there are other insightful reasons why too.  These are at the top of my head from reading and meetings lately.  David Hodgson et al’s plans for “Project X” may help remedy this – at least for consultants.  It’s a great idea, and I hope they succeed for all of our sake.

Note: David’s “Project X” changed models and is now more of a cross-organizational think tank.

Finding Your Calling: It’s Clear & Easy… When the Time Is Right

August 22, 2013
Haleiwa sunset

Haleiwa sunset

Yesterday I arrived in Haleiwa, on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii.  I’m staying for a week with Ele Fong, a California native who recently relocated to this much more relaxed, tropical environment, and who offers a room in her airy house listed on AirBnB.  As a first welcome, we went to happy hour at Luibueno’s Mexican Seafood & Fish Market, and unexpectedly talked about her calling to make an impact in this world.

It all began for her while majoring in cross-discliplinary Gender Studies at UCLA, where she had a visceral (negative) response learning about the mistreatment of women and children around the world, and its correlation with socio-economic status.  This was like the seed or, as she says, the passion in her heart.  Over the next more than 10 years, she made up her mind to explore various jobs around this humanitarian theme: counseling children (she has a masters in counseling), working at shelters in San Francisco, ministering weddings, and more…  At one point, she sold tea for a commercial Japanese tea company, a time she says she was the most lost.

But then, she recalls, in December 2008 relaxing in her Larkspur home by the fireplace, it hit her so crystal clear in her body and heart that she would create a revenue-generating business around tea that would fund a school and programs for women and children so they had viable alternatives to human/sex trafficking.


A goddess of tea

The business would be called the Goddesses of Tea, and it would spotlight and empower all the women around tea: growers, makers, distributor buyers, and drinkers — because tea allows the drinker to embody all the goddess characteristics of a woman: to quiet yourself and relax, connect with spirit, and nurture yourself and others.  Funds from the tea business would then support programs on-the-ground in the countries that produce tea – directly impacting these impoverished rural regions and providing safe, economic alternatives to selling yourself or your children for cash.

Bam, just like that, the seed passion turned into a concrete vision and, as she says, doors keep opening and things unfold bringing her closer to making this dream a reality.  Next up are rev-generating tea tours, where she will bring small groups with her for eco-educational tours as she develops more relationships with the tea growers and makers in Asia, and identifies where the future schools may be.  (I also have to give props to my uncle Fu-Tung’s business Teance, as she just visited with his business partner Winnie as part of her research. Small world!)

ANYWAY.  Hearing about how her vision came to her in a flash with no thinking at all reminded me of how I dove into sustainable agriculture.  At the time, I was actually painstakingly trying to develop a travel program for malleable American teenagers, so they could be exposed to other cultures and perspectives, when I had my “flash crystal clear calling”.  In July 2002, I was en route back to the States after living in London when I had a layover at JFK and skimmed Fast Food Nation and Kitchen Confidential.  Aside from seeking out organic foods in London from a purely non-chemical freshness perspective, I had never even thought about farmers.  And yet, reading about the demise of ethical and environmental food production and quest for quality ingredients in these two books, I knew without a doubt that I was going to create an organic farm-to-restaurant co-op in San Francisco.

Rounding up orders at the market

Rounding up orders at the market

Literally the day after I arrived back home, I went to the Green Street Farmers Market (now the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market) and signed up seven organic farmers right off the bat.  That week, I signed up five more organic farms and within two weeks I had enlisted chefs from 17 of the top restaurants I had always loved.  It was oddly too easy.  By the end of August, the Om Organics co-op was started.

That’s the funny thing.  It seems that finding your vocation (which literally means “a call” or “a summons” in Latin) can’t be found with effort or by trying to think about it.  It is truly like divine crystal clarity that hits you over the head with inspiration to do something specific, and having things weirdly and magically just fall into place.

As Abraham says: “Inspiration comes forth from within. It’s what the light burning within you is about, as opposed to motivation, which is doing it because if you don’t do it, there will be negative repercussions…Inspiration is having the clear picture of what I am wanting — and letting Universal forces come into play to get the outcome.”

It’s a beautiful thing and a comfort to know that you just have to be clear-headed, heart-centered, and open to listening when your calling may come, and somehow everything you have done up until that point will oddly be perfect prep for your intended work.  Eleanor Roosevelt was right on in her quote below, although sometimes a good vacation away from your routine is all you need to be smacked over the head with your vocation.


How to become a ChangeMaker? Can you be transparent & co-creative AND make money?

August 17, 2013

ChangeMakerBootcampRecently, my friend Eugene Kim publicly launched a business he has been pilot-testing for the past year called ChangeMaker Bootcamp.  It’s basically six two-hour training sessions over the course of six weeks where up to 12 participants learn (and then practice on their own time) principles to “work effectively in groups.”

The premise (which I wholeheartedly believe myself) is that in order to work in the “change sector” or for positive change in general, you can’t be a self-centered, self-serving shmuck.  You actually need to learn a new way of doing business from the conventional dog-eat-dog corporate world, and instead – as the ChangeMaker Bootcamp site says – practice:

  • Asking generative questions
  • Strategic doing
  • Listening and synthesizing actively and in real-time
  • Navigating group dynamics and difficult conversations
  • Designing and facilitating group engagements
  • Working transparently

The price for the Bootcamp is $695.

While totally agreeing with the bullets as best practices and “must-learn” topics, the price tag made me question if this could fly.

Is Eugene already well-known and respected as a consultant from Blue Oxen Associates and Groupya?  Absolutely.  Would some of his past clients vouch for his awesomeness that warrants $695 for one-on-one training?  I have no doubt.

And yet, recently Eugene posted on his Facebook wall that he had received some “hostile feedback” from a “surprising source” about the Bootcamp.  He and I also had a friendly email exchange about my misconception that because it was called a “ChangeMaker Bootcamp”, I assumed it would contain all the topics to truly become a change maker business person – ie business operations, marketing, financials, etc.

Later in the day, Eugene posted a wonderfully humble and proactive blog post in response to all  the constructive criticism from his friends: “Things I Need To Do Better.”  In it, among other things, he says he’s considering changing the name, and:

“My twist is that I’m working transparently. I’m sharing the lessons I’m learning — both good and bad — here and as close to real-time as possible. If you watch the exit interviews of past participants, they’re pretty candid about what could be better. I want people to see this, because I want others to learn from my experiences.”

This all reminded me of a conversation I had with two wonderful instructors of a new Laban-based movement workshop for women I did last year (my brother will guest-blog about Laban soon :)).  There were about 30 of us participating in this brand-spanking new workshop from two very accomplished instructors, and it was very clear that our feedback and ideas were part of their creative process, and therefore shaping the workshop content.  It was great.  Fun, inspiring and useful in our daily lives.  And, totally worth the $400-600 that everyone paid.  All but maybe one or two were excited about a follow-up workshop session in the near future.

Screen Shot 2013-08-17 at 10.52.36 AM

Workshop for which we were guinea pigs in its inaugural year, 2012

But then, the future came a few months later, and only one or two of the 30 signed up for the $110 follow-up, so it was cancelled.  I talked with a few of the women who didn’t sign up, and everyone (off the record) basically said the same thing: Why should we pay $110 for content that we helped create?

The two fabulous instructors obviously created the core content, and yet we all (including I) felt like $110 was pretty steep despite our paying hundreds more before.  Why?

Two key tenets of the social/enviro/self-care movement in the world are transparency and co-creation/collaboration.  Both of which are awesome.  But, how transparent is too transparent?  And, how much should you (as the leader or service provider) need your future customers to come up with your amazing product or service?

I think that, unfortunately, our society is still in a place where we only want to pay top dollar for conventional for-profit not-so-transparent businesses and services.  Our society likes the idea of having some brilliant design team come up with a magical product or service and then present it in all its glory to the world to buy.  It’s nice to know how the creators did it, but do we really care?  Do we want to know how many screw-ups and prototypes it took to create that kick-ass electric sports car, personal activity tracking device, amazing workshop, or other such hot valuable thing?  I’m going to say No.  If we’re going to pay $X00, $X,000 or $X MM for something, it better be rocking when we get it.  I believe that is just how we think.

So, this concept of being transparent about your inherently mistake-laden creative process and requiring your future customers to help you fine-tune your product or service simply doesn’t seem to make sense…if you want to make as much money as conventional single-bottom line businesses. Or, does it?  Is there a way to have it all?  I’d love to learn about who has done this…!

Crowd-Sourcing Innovation & CFOs for…Um, Everyone

August 8, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-08-08 at 11.24.54 PM

Tonight I went to a cool social dinner called Innovate Berkeley.  It is a monthly meetup where Urban Innovation Exchange (UIX), the HUB Berkeley, and the Office of Economic Development bring folks together, with no real agenda but to enjoy a delicious dinner from a local chef, chat amongst yourselves, and hear a very short talk by an interesting “featured innovator”.  Jennifer (I believe), the Sustainable Business Coordinator for the City of Berkeley, explained what a potent combination it is to simply bring the business sector, academia, and the government into the same room.

Tonight the “featured innovator” was Mike North, “celebrity PhD engineer” (really?), who used to host a show on the Discover Channel called Prototype This!, and who is now doing some really cool work with his organization ReAllocate, which “engages world-class engineering and design talent to work real-world problems.”  In a way, it’s like Kickstarter where you post your “real-world problem” and hopefully attract smart people to contribute their brainpower for your project resolution.

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Already, ReAllocate has done some interesting work crowd-sourcing ingenuity for food storage systems in rural Alaska, clean water systems in Nepal, and a low-cost treatment for children with club feet across the world.  Until now, it’s clearly been mostly mechanical engineering projects, but how cool to find a way to tap engineers of all types, designers, economists, and whomever else to help solve your change-making business problems.  (Would love to crowd-source the mastermind engineers and designers of the world to figure out how to quickly/easily/cheaply set up infrastructure and operations for regional food aggregation and distribution, and low-cost customized and/or modular equipment for smaller scale farmers, but that is a dream for another day.)

As Mike explained: What amazing things you can do when you engage the community to validate and co-design solutions.  So, that’s Great Idea #1.

Great Idea #2 came up while eating delicious food from Hugh Groman (owner of Phil’s Sliders, Hugh Groman Catering & Green Platters) and chatting with Alan (aspiring Maker entrepreneur), Polly Armstrong (CEO of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce – yes, I just linked to their Yelp page!  They want to turn the Chamber into an Innovation Community Center, how cool), and Bob Fukushima (landscape architect & San Leandro food justice advocate).

Cutting to the meat of the conversation… Question: what do these all have in common:

  • Local businesses who can’t stay in business paying staff as much as minimum wage.
  • Restaurant owners who hire 10 part-time staff so they don’t have to pay health benefits for 5 full-time staff, even when managing 10 staff is much more burdensome.
  • Service people working multiple part-time minimum wage + tips jobs as a standard.
  • Farmers who don’t know profit margins or cost-benefit analysis re: which channel to sell their products through, and running ragged juggling order processing, truck deliveries, and staffing for the myriad channels.
  • Grocery stores that can’t afford to manage fresh flower inventory and therefore put all the inventory costs and liability on the supplying farmers, who then go out of business.
  • Produce distributors whose margins are so tight, they milk supply and demand dynamics by marking up scarce product prices more than 200% when it’s actually available for half the price to buyers through other channels.

Screen Shot 2013-08-08 at 11.48.33 PMAnswer: If each of these businesses had a CFO to help with basic financial analyses of their operations, at least half – if not most – of their problems would disappear.  Obviously, the business model in itself has to be sound.  And,  just crunching the numbers certainly won’t ensure your business success.  But, at least with a CFO-type person helping to identify profit centers, helping cut “dead wood” (read: activities or operations that are bleeding the operation dry), and calculating optimal pricing and inventory based on actual historical/market data, these enterprises would have a much higher chance for survival.

What would it take to disseminate CFO skills applicable to these fundamental industries, and fast?  How hugely impactful that would be.  The government’s Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) were created to do this, but they are falling far, far short.

How to develop new ways of teaching business and financial skills to the masses?  Informal learning networks, I’m going to say, layered on community development networks, oh yes!