Blogs >> The Local Entrepreneur Forum has the power to change our economy - Jay Tompt

The Local Entrepreneur Forum has the power to change our economy - Jay Tompt

Tomatoes at a local market

I’m old enough to remember when word processing and spreadsheets were the ‘killer apps’ that not only enabled wide-spread adoption of desktop computers across the business world, but unleashed an industry.

That was over 30 years ago. Today, it’s – what? Dodocase cardboard virtually reality glasses? I’m a bit out of touch.

What’s a ‘killer app’? Originally, it referred to the software application, or method of use, that enables a hardware platform to become indispensable and ubiquitous.

It’s the thing that unlocks market potential, unleashes successive waves of tech booms and boomlets, and creates kid coder billionaires. Today, the term is a bit cliché and oxymoronic – it is the thing that delivers the breath of life.

If Transition Towns provide a platform for community-led response to climate change and resource depletion, perhaps the killer apps that enabled it to take root all over the world were Open Space Technology and visioning. Both are cheap, easy and effective methods for engaging and mobilising people, ‘unleashing their collective genius’ to begin collaborating on local solutions together.

If REconomy is now an extension of that platform for community-led economic change, then what’s the killer app?

The ‘new economy’ movement offers many models, projects and activities for motivated community groups, whether they call themselves REconomy, or not – cooperatives and social enterprises, complementary currencies and community exchange schemes, local economy studies and reports. Each of these nudge us forward.

But the central issue is this: if we want to see a new kind of economy, one that’s ecologically sustainable, inclusive, fair and resilient, we must create the conditions for new economic actors and relationships to emerge, take root and thrive. ­

The project here is one of catalysing and nurturing economic culture change. This requires something holistic and foundational, engaging and inclusive. And it requires something that regular people can do with modest resources.

The REconomy stream of Transition has yet to find its killer app, but I’d like to make the case that the Local Entrepreneur Forum could be it.

Over the years the Local Entrepreneur Forum, (LEF), in Totnes, has developed from a day-long event into a model that sets the context for our broader economic relocalisation agenda. It is inexpensive to run and requires no specially trained economists, consultants or MBAs. It creates space for a new story about how economic activity fits into the context of the kind of society and community we really want, including the roles we can all play. It’s inclusive and convivial. It’s a community builder.

The model delivers on many fronts – it’s a ‘synergistic satisfier‘ that ‘stacks functions‘ like a good permaculture project should. And it’s easily replicable. With the right approach and ‘well-prepared soil’, regular people with modest resources can implement the LEF almost anywhere and get good results.

Our results in Totnes have been very good. We’ve had a total participation of over 500 people, with a a good mix of repeat participants and new faces, as well as a few curious ones from out of town. We’ve had 18 enterprises pitch, 16 of which are still up and running. Fourteen are projects that are operating in the sectors we included in the Local Economic Blueprint work – health & care, housing, renewable energy, and food. Projects have raised about £70,000 as a direct result of pitching at the LEF, and indirectly it’s fair to say that a couple of hundred thousand have been raised. This has been a combination of loan, equity, grant, pre sales, and gift.

‘Investments’ have also included offers of non-financial support, including professional business services, legal services, marketing and communications, advertising, video and radio production, mentoring and coaching, use of buildings and office space, use of land, labour, fruit trees, mulch, horse paddock, lunches, home-cooked meals, massages, and much more. These are gifted but worth thousands of pounds, as well.  And as a direct result of their LEF experience, 7 new full time jobs, 5 part time and temporary jobs have been created.

The day includes inspiring speakers and an Open Space session where people have a chance to propose and participate in breakout discussions on topics that have included ‘how to talk to investors’, ‘who else is interested in eco tourism’, ‘starting a community-owned launderette’. 

One of the highlights of the day is the ‘Community of Dragons’, where four or five deserving entrepreneurs pitch their projects to the investors. These are entrepreneurs building enterprises that will contribute to the community, as indicated above, plus meet additional criteria. We reserve one slot for a youth-led enterprise. They each get 5 minutes to make their pitch, followed by brief Q&A from the audience. Then the facilitator opens the floor for investment offers and pledges of support, and the investors begin raising their hands.

All of this creates opportunities for relationships to develop between people who may play different and complementary roles in the enterprise development process. These kinds of relationships are the foundation on which an entrepreneurial culture can begin to develop, therefore this part of the day is very important. Just as important, these activities also help to build capability and confidence for people who otherwise might be excluded.

And the ‘investors’ – we are appropriating this word, too. We all have a stake in what kind of society and economy we co-create. We should all have a voice in what businesses operate in our community. We should all be able to invest our support in the kinds of enterprises we want to see in our town and neighbourhoods, whatever our assets. So, the LEF creates the opportunity for everyone to invest and to participate. We’re all investors.

Naturally, we have a very broad definition of what it means to invest, as well as what kinds of returns that can be earned. Some people can make financial gifts, loans, or purchase shares. Tangible financial returns can include interest, share in profits, dividends, or products and services that have been prepurchased. Because we, the investors, are supporting projects we would like to see in our community, put forward by people we most likely know, we can be more flexible than a conventional bank, sharing risk, accepting below market interest or none at all, extending long or indefinite grace periods on repayments. We call this ‘patient’ or ‘friendly’ capital.

Less tangible, or perhaps simply more difficult to measure, returns on both the financial and non-financial investments are many, and perhaps, even more interesting in terms of the new economic story they tell. By replacing the heartless logic of profit maximising capitalism with a heartful logic of nourishing the life and health of our community, we can make a case for a wider range of investment activity. Practical support, whether in the form of finance, hard assets or expertise, can help a local enterprise to launch and thrive. To the extent the success of the enterprise contributes to community wellbeing, ecological sustainability, and resilience, the returns on those kinds of investments include a healthy, vibrant, friendly place to live.

A very small example in daily life: putting up (perhaps) with a little inconvenience and (perhaps) higher prices by shopping with independent High Street shops, rather than the corporate-owned supermarket, can also be seen as an investment supporting those locally-owned shops, and the return is a living High Street and maybe better quality products, too.

But there is a deeper level, here. In the context of the LEF, by making an investment with an entrepreneur, one makes a similar but more direct gesture that is both interpersonal and public. Whether practical or not, the ‘investment’ can also deliver something enlivening. A pat on the back or a hug on the day delivers an affirming vote of confidence and care.

An offer to mind the children to free time for an important meeting or making a useful introduction to a colleague, goes farther, weaving relationships and creating real solidarity. Every entrepreneur needs a range of support beyond financial capital and a business plan. Every successful and happy entrepreneur has a support network of some kind, lifting them when they’re down, celebrating with them when they’re up.

The returns, to continue this metaphor, are also enlivening, enriching the investor in similar ways. People want to participate and feel that their contributions are valued, that they have something important to offer. In fact, economist Manfred Max-Neef identifies ‘participation’ as a fundamental human need, essential for community wellbeing.

When the offers are made in the presence of others, it creates shared feelings of generosity and abundance that includes everyone in the room. It also sets new precedents and new norms, new expectations about what’s possible, new economic relations within the fabric of the community.

The LEF is a focal point for work that carries on through the year, building on the relationships begun or deepened at the event, the collaborations and enterprises that launched, the investments made, and the emerging norms and ‘new economy’ narrative. This work includes the ongoing communications through PR and social media, public talks, networking events, workshops, and lots of one to one conversations, all of which encourage more participation, influence the public dialogue, and nurture connections that may lead to new projects. 

We think the LEF can work in a similar way for other community groups, too, including the hundreds of healthy Transition initiatives in towns and cities all over. In fact, the model is already beginning to spread. There are early signs that these forums are popping up across the UK and also in the USA.  The LEF might just be the 'killer app'.

*This is an edited version of a blog written by Jay Tompt that first appeared on www.enterprisingecosystems.org

Andy Goldring and Jay Tompt are teaching on the forthcoming shortcourse Kickstart Economic Transition in Your Community

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