Are you a Briar? Well, you might be if you try to live simply, share resources and skills with others, and practice right livelihood rather than grasp for fame and riches.

Briarpatch is a non-organized network of businesses in the San Francisco Bay area whose goals are to learn, share, and grow with each other rather than simply make money, even though making money is not looked down upon. Briars do attempt to differentiate between what they think they want and what they need.

The Briarpatch network grew out of the now-defunct Portola Institute, which was set up to distribute the profits from the Whole Earth Catalogue. After The Last Whole Earth Catalogue had been published, the Portola Institute went into a long and steady decline, as it supported a series of innovative businesses that failed. In July, 1974, Dick Raymond, publisher of the Whole Earth Catalogue and director of the Portola Institute, conceived the idea of a Briarpatch network of businesses and called a weekend meeting of interested people in the San Francisco Bay area. This meeting marked the beginning of Portola’s shift away from global and often abstract “whole earth” issues towards the practical and more localized concerns of Briardom.

The first group of Briars tried to clarify the relationship between money, business, and their personal lives. There are currently 125 member businesses, most of whom still share this concern. Dues for a six-month period range from $30 to $110, depending upon ability to pay. All types of businesses are part of the network — ice cream shops, grocery stores, teachers of Tantric yoga, toy manufacturers. The individuals who own and manage these businesses are just as varied: cultists, pin-stripe suiters, scientists.

Small businesses like those in Briarpatch usually have several strikes against them: lack of financial leverage and practical know-how, banks demanding success before loaning money, and insufficient capital. Besides helping each other with information, support, and sometimes cash, Briar businesses employ two consultants to advise members about finances, advertising, growth, marketing, capitalization and just about every other aspect of running a small business. This is done over the phone as well as by personal visit.

A Skills-Exchange Newsletter is also circulated. It lists resources and skills which Briars freely make available to each other. For example, a carpenter can phone a banker for advice about a loan or a writer can ask a lawyer about copyright law. When it comes to specific tasks or materials, Briars will often barter rather than use money.

A few times a year Briars gather for pot luck dinners to discuss common problems and concerns. No Roberts Rules of Order, by-laws, or ideology — simply people bonded by a shared, unspoken notion of what business and life are about.

Briarpatch makes its members keenly aware of their relationship to each other and the community. This is why it is referred to as a network rather than a group of people pursuing separate interests. Briars don’t see size as a goal or sales as a ranking. The main reason for being in business is to learn something about oneself and the world; this is possible in an economically successful business as well as in one filing for bankruptcy.

One good example of how Briars work: Play Experiences, a playground consulting firm, had $500. It needed $1,000 for an insurance payment before starting its first job. Two Briar businesses gave it a three-month interest-free loan.

There are not many “patches” around the country, especially in North Carolina. There was an attempt a few years ago to start an alternative merchants’ association in the Chapel Hill area. The impetus was the row over street vending. About 30 businesses opposed the town’s ban on vendors and even after the issue died, this group continued to get together to discuss general business problems. There were suggestions for a credit union and a placement service for part-time work. But nothing came of it.

But there are Briar seeds everywhere. I regularly talk with other businesspeople about accounting, cash flow, pricing, and so on. All we can do is create the right environment for a Briarpatch. We can’t make it happen, since a successful Briarpatch begins with a state of mind and then grows into a community.

 

For more information, write to Annie Styron for issues of the Briarpatch Review, 330 Ellis St., San Francisco, Calif. 94102. Single issues are $1.25, including postage. A one year subscription is $5.00.