“You see all of us go through the same doubts. We are afraid of being mad; unfortunately for us, of course, all of us are already mad.”
Carlos Castaneda

Tales of Power

What is it that stays in business forever?


I tend to be direct and honest in my life and so when Fred Wilson announced that he was giving a online-course on “How to Stay in Business Forever” I was anxious to hear what he had to say, but even more then his answers I was curious about the questions he would raise around the topic. I had a few energies kind of working against me experiencing a potential learning experience from the start: (a) I live in a very different world and context than Fred and I assume most of the course participants (b) I felt my expectations were naive and (c) I came to it with prejudiced ideas on the subject.

I made an effort to stick along. I read and listened to all the course materials. I also came prepared with a “business” case that was already alive and decided to participate with it. The “business” was Cutia Taranului (which translates in English to Peasant Box) … and it was easy for me to model because it was already a living entity (here is the business model I created during the course). It also provided an example that I felt went to the heart of the subject of the course. I have a lot to say about sustainability in business in general and specifically in regard to Cutia Taranului … but to make my main point I will focus on one aspect.

Cutia Taranului is a project which enables small local producers, usually Romanian peasant families to sell fresh produce directly to consumers in cities. We use online tools to reach relevant city-consumers who can sign up to have a fixed (all boxes are the same, though contents change with the seasons of the year) box delivered weekly, directly to their homes by the peasant-families. The greatest challenge in the project has been a huge and demanding shift in mentality for peasants who have joined – a fascinating (and critical to the project’s success) topic that goes beyond the scope of this post. The project is designed to circumvent many existing market forces which are working against peasants and driving them into poverty and in doing so are depriving Romania of what I consider to be a national resource: almost half of the Romanian population are peasasnts and Romania is a country that is still able to feed itself with good food.

The project was an idea for over a year before it began to come to life when last winter we began talking about it with what would become the first peasant family to join – Ildi and Levente. They live in a neighboring village. They have a teen-age daughter that stays with them on weekends, holidays and during vacations, the rest of the time she lives with her grandmother (~40km away) in a small city where she has access to a better school then what is available locally. They have been growing and selling food for 12 years, they love doing it even though it has gradually become tougher for them to make a living from it.

In past years Ildi, in addition to all the physical work during the spring, summer and fall seasons, has had to travel to work in Europe during winter to bring home more money for them to survive financially (this is a typical pattern here in Romania amongst both men and women). She also went away last winter but couldn’t tolerate the work came back home after a few weeks. Had she not come home we would not have had an opportunity to speak with them about Cutia Taranului (it is mostly women who have been the dominant force of change in this project). It took months for us to get to know each other, to speak about Cutia Taranului and for them to agree to give it a try and for us to begin to build the project.

You can read more about the fascinating evolution that followed here. However in the context of this post I want to highlight one thing I haven’t written about before. This winter Ildi does not need to even consider going to work in the winter. She can stay home and rest, spend time with her family. Her teenage daughter will have a mother this winter. In my heart and mind, regardless of whatever the future may hold for Cutia Taranului, it has already achieved “foreverness”. I have no doubt that the reverberations of a family that can rest and stay together (instead of being worn out and separated) will echo long and far … beyond even conscious awareness … forever.

With this example in mind I want to ask an unanswered question that I most wanted to hear addressed in the course: what is it that stays in business forever?

Most businesses, no matter how successful at a given point in time or  smartly managed, fail to last a long time. I tried to think of examples and the best, and I believe rare, one I came up with was the company that manufactures, amongst other things, the quality axes we own – Fiskars is a company that dates back to 1649. Another example that came to my mind was Kodak founded in 1888 but today seems to spiraling out of existence and does not look like it will get close to achieving “foreverness”.

The Internet also came to mind as a unique example of “foreverness”. Though it isn’t a business I do believe it is a special entity that can be educative. The Internet is, in my mind, an idea about connectivity. Though it is still very young it is unique due to a collection of fascinating attributes. It is a simple idea. It requires a massive global infrastructure that lends existence to many businesses. It has both a physical existence in terms of hardware and an abstract existence in terms of software. It has known a continuous existence and yet none of the original physical or abstract elements that existed when it was born are around today. And of those that are around today it is safe to assume that none of those elements which make it possible today will last very long into the future. Neither will the many thousands of businesses that make it possible. Yet it is very likely to last for a very long time … if not “forever”.

Microsoft is a fantastic example that comes to my mind. It was a key player in my life during most of my professional IT career. At the same time it was a horrendous presence in my personal life. I never felt I could afford to pay for Microsoft’s (nor other companies) software and so I became a chronic software thief. For some years now I am based on completely open-source software and am very happy with the change. The most potent memory I had of Microsoft was the huge relief of getting them completely out of my life (I was recently sad to realize they had found a way to sneak back into my life when they purchased Skype). I will be happy to see them fade into a distant memory. Despite it’s immense role in the world I grew up in I don’t believe Microsoft has “foreverness” in its DNA. At best, I believe it will be able to achieve Kodak-like longevity.

Another great example is Apple. A company that dominates contemporary consumer technology. Despite its inarguably significant contribution to technology and the technological evolution of society, I have, mostly through conscious choice, never owned one of their beautiful products. Like with Microsoft, I could not afford Apple products when I was vulnerable to their charms. Once I became aware of Apple’s destructive traits I lost interest in them altogether and, when asked, warn people about consuming their offerings. They too, despite their current prominance and because of their destructive  patterns, do not, I believe have access to “foreverness” and are also limited to Kodak-like longevity.

I believe that an unstated and agreed (amongst Fred and most course participants) subtext of Fred’s course relates to a narrow aspect of business – money and profitability. Yet I believe that is the least likely aspect of business to achieve “foreverness”. I believe that aspect is not only impossible to sustain (if not already systemically dying) but that striving to maintain it may very well undermine other, more precious aspects of “business” that deserve a shot at “foreverness”.

I believe that a potential for “foreverness” lies not in businesses (as legal entities or any other fleeting inventions we imagine in and out of existence) but in a much more elusive aspect that resides in the hearts & minds of individuals and has to do with purpose (I am convinced that the purpose of Fiskars went through many changes over the centuries, however I am also convinced that its longevity over those centuries was dependent on individual leaders with a personal and demanding sense of purpose). I cannot state the purpose of Cutia Taranului in words … it is clear in my heart and has many echoes in my mind (maybe deserving a separate post) … yet it has nothing to do with creating a profitable legal entity. That is, at best, a temporary side-effect, a stepping stone towards something better, moslty unknown and super-charged with long-term sustainable strategies.





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