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Permaculture Business, Part 3: On Barriers

If you haven’t done so already, you can read Part I and Part II of this series.

by Rob Avis

A personal take on barriers to success

As with any career or business, there are barriers to achieving success. It is important to be aware of as many of these barriers as possible so that you can avoid the pitfalls. One of Darren Doherty’s sayings is that you need to “know what you don’t know” and know when you need to ask for advice. This is crucial to your success as one of the biggest pitfalls when starting a new project in a foreign area is you usually don’t even know what these unknowns might look like.

The best way to get a picture of these unknowns is to talk to as many people as you can. These should be people that have been around for a while and can see challenges you can’t see. One of the ways that Michelle and I learned about our existing business model was to travel. We went all over the globe seeking solutions, innovation, and inspiring people. We worked on farms, we repaired wind turbines and solar arrays, we planted garlic and on and on, and while we were working we were able to ask hard, open-ended questions. It made a huge difference. If I could start all over again, I would have talked to even more people.

Your own imagination is the true ability of the permaculture design system — you need to trust the system and stick to main frame basics with profound and thorough thinking while trusting yourself. — Geoff Lawton

One of my biggest personal barriers has always been getting outside the box. I will always remember the above quote from Geoff Lawton on the second day of my PDC. To this day, I still find it difficult on occasion to think laterally.

Other Permaculture business barriers and challenges

When asked about barriers, experts again and again included the lack of practical design experience. I can relate. Being an engineer, I had a huge learning curve getting to the space I’m in now. Again, one of the ways that I gained experience was doing tons of volunteering around the world, working on free and inexpensive design projects. Unfortunately, what I learned is that, outside of getting experience, doing things for free and cheap is not well-respected. People don’t take you seriously.

It’s important to move on from that as fast as you can. Your time is valuable, and permaculture principles teaches us to always obtain a yield. Your ticket price conveys a lot of hidden information to a potential client, including the value of your service or product, as well as how much you value yourself.

Land access also poses a major challenge. Like Ben Falk said, “not having access to a site to practice on” has been an issue I have been grappling for years and it seems to get harder and harder with each passing year.

Richard Perkins also noted several other barriers to running a successful permaculture
business:

  • Public perception of permaculture
  • The lack of a business mindset
  • Lack of tangible data within the community

Barrier #1: The hippie image

For better or for worse, the image that most people have of permaculture designers is usually that they are a bunch of hippies. I think this is unfortunate because, 1) the word hippie is totally misunderstood and misused and 2) permaculture design is truly amazing and unique in its approach to problem-solving. One of the ways we can counter this stereotype is to exude professionalism. As Ethan Roland states, “Get a nice business shirt, nice pants, and new shoes. No Carhartts, flannel and work boots.” I have found that when I show up to meetings looking professional, I carry a lot more weight.

Barrier #2: Not understanding capital

As with most business ventures, there is a certain amount of capital required to get something off the ground. A lot of us think about capital solely in a financial sense, but as Ethan Roland and Gregorie Landua point out in their book, Regenerative Enterprise, there are eight forms of capital: Intellectual, material, financial, living, cultural, social, and in terms of the ethical sensibilities that should be informing what we do, spiritual capital. You may not have tons of money, but you probably have capital in one or more of the other areas.

Personally, I am a big fan of low financial capital, no bricks and mortar-style businesses, at least as a starting place. They allow us to begin without having to get loans and let us use the cash we’ve saved up to keep food on the table as we build our business. I am a huge fan of the SPIN farming model for this reason.

Barrier #3: A lack of tangible data

It’s hard to document all of your projects when they are coming at you at a million miles per second. The movement has also largely avoided working with colleges and universities, which serves its grassroots nature but hinders it from gaining mainstream legitimacy.

All these challenges may seem daunting, but as Adam Brock says, “starting a business is hard, period, and it’s all the more so when you are trying to do something that heals communities and ecosystems.” Next, we’ll look at ways to turn barriers into positives.

Turning business barriers into take-off points

So to sum up: It’s hard to start a business. You need to have a considerable amount of experience, which is hard to get, in order to become a good designer or run a successful enterprise. We have to leave our inner hippie at the door. Also, there’s not that much support for PDC students who want to take that next step:


Adam Brock

Our own movement has not done a very good job of providing ongoing support for new permies after the PDC. We need to start offering a wide variety of advanced education opportunities and more robust diploma programs to provide pathways to professional success. — Adam Brock

I couldn’t agree with Adam more. It makes me wonder why there are so many of us just teaching PDCs instead of moving up the market to support younger designers and entrepreneurs with mentorship and guidance as they start their own permaculture journeys.

So how do we turn these seemingly big barriers into opportunities? I agree that running a business is hard and that getting experience can be challenging, but I also know how awesome it is to wake up with my kids and have a slow breakfast with them. I love that I control my own vacation time and that I control my working week. I was the kid in school that always had the lowest grades and struggled to make it through. I failed most of my biology classes and here I am teaching about it – why? It has only been since owning my own business that I understand the true power of passion.

When you are working with passion everything seems possible — work is fun and you can overcome anything. While some argue that working within your passion is a bad idea, I can’t imagine doing something for 40 hours a week that I hate.

There is of course one caveat that I would add: Passion-based anything can easily become an obsession and sometimes it can be hard to turn off. If you can manage this, you will be off to the races.

Some fantastic pieces of advice from Richard Perkins


Richard Perkins

I choose to work with folks who are specifically looking for what I can offer, and I’ve learned what sort of engagements I’m not interested in.

For anyone wanting to farm, then complimentary businesses are the lowest risk, lowest investment way to be beneficial for sure. For example, after a couple of months of landing here in Sweden I noticed nearly every farm was underutilized which around me is mostly grazing and forestry. I set up a meeting with the neighbor and an hour later had full permission to start holistically managing beef and chicken grazing across 80 ha. — Richard Perkins

Continue to the next part in this series: On Mentorship

8 Comments

  1. Excellent article Rob. You pointed to some important issues within permaculture, such as support to PDC graduates in order to boost their skill sets and get them moving forward. I feel very fortunate in that I’ve worked in the landscape design and construction industry for 30 odd years. Just finished up my PDC (Geoff Lawton’s online course) and I’m feeling really good that the transition between careers is going to be easier than I thought. If I was 30 years younger it would be a different scenerio (less life and work experience), where would I start? Most likely I would have followed a path similar to yours Rob, travel/ work my way around the globe. So yes, for new people entering this incredible field support and or mentoring will pay huge dividends in terms of their confidence and the results they will produce.

  2. Great set of articles Rob,
    I have written a few articles posted here previously about my experience in starting a permaculture related business. I will have to write another to update readers where I am at because sharing information on this topic is important.
    When I first started I thought it would be so much easier than it has been, however I never thought the rewards would be as large as they have been either. The personal satisfaction of doing something you love and making a living from it is hard to describe. That being said, the challenges are considerable.
    I think some of the most important points you have made from my experience is start small and expand…don’t try to be everything as permaculture can lead some to believe they have an answer for all issues. You need experience which you will gather along the way.
    Be professional, seek business start-up assistance as there are many hurdles that can be more easily tackled if you have some guidance along the way. You can ask mentors etc or seek help from places such as the Business Enterprise centers here in Australia that are designed to increase your chances of success.
    Most of all, get out there and start giving it a go. You don’t know where it will lead and you will get a better feel for what the market wants. Learn what people really need in your area and concentrate on how you can provide it to them packing as much value into it from their perspective as possible. List some packages to make it easy for clients to buy including some that are low risk (i.e. low cost but they can expand on if they like your work). Make sure you ask good questions and tailor solutions to fit your clients needs. If you can’t do it all on your own team up with other professionals to make sure you do a great job and learn along the way….and always try to under promise and over deliver but don’t get trapped doing too much work for free.
    Thanks for this Rob…I’m looking forward to reading your next article.
    p.s. also, market yourself and don’t feel you have to attach the label “permaculture” to what you do, just get out there and do it!

  3. Ditto Jamie’s sentiments. Celebrating 35 years in the original green industry and trying to shift my existing model to remove what is no longer sustainable (in my forward thinking mind) and encourage our clientele to adopt new practices. What is old is new again! I completed my certificate program here in Minnesota. My son will be attending Sepp Holzer’s course in Austria this Aug after his WWOOF experience in Sweden, them coming back to MN to work together. I can’t think of anything better than multi generational support and learning. Bloom On permaculture!

  4. You said it, Rob.

    Passion trumps everything.

    It keeps us going when everyone says ‘impossible’ and gets us past the point of no return. Some say don’t burn your bridges, but IMO, Plan A is more likely to happen when there’s no Plan B to fall back on.

    The light of passion must burn bright enough to stay the course, but slow enough to endure the journey.

    And excellent articles like these, stoke the fire. Eagerly awaiting the next… :)

  5. “One of the ways we can counter this stereotype is to exude professionalism.” On our last property that we developed, I initially employed a PDC graduate who, while having a lot of good knowledge really did fall short of the sort of professionalism that someone who is a qualified landscape architect would have. Then I stumbled across a young man who is indeed a landscape architect and a landscaper but who also happened to be a permaculture designer and a very good one at that he is. I got nothing but professionalism from him. The sort that I could only really expect from a Geoff Lawton or a Darren Dougherty or a David Holmgren. It made all the difference in the world and I have not looked back since. It was worth the fee that I paid to him (which wasn’t much) as it was at the same time a fantastic learning lesson for me to the point that I now fully understand how to put together food forest guilds. So, I could not agree more, we need more professionalism in permaculture.

    1. Dean,

      Interesting. I would be fascinated to read what you learned about putting together food forest guilds from the young man you mentioned.

      It might also be worth mentioning his name so that his reputation and knowledge spreads further yet.

      Lee

      1. Hi Lee, What Grant did for me was lay out a detailed plan that included chooks and vege beds but what I was most concerned with, was the detailed plans for cool climate fruit tree guilds. With the sort of detail that we would typically see from a qualified landscape architect, which is what he is. He detailed the plants as according to what use they provide in the guild, whether fauna attracting, nitrogen fixer, nutrient or dynamic accumulator or micro climate creator and then placed into the guild design where each of those plants should be placed. This made the whole job of understanding guilds for an old slow witted buggar like me so much easier. The pleasure that has been obtained in watching these guilds develop into an insect and other fauna heaven was worth the price in itself aside from having the opportunity to learn at the level of experience by having the plan laid out for me. One day, I even saw the native, rare Blue Spotted bee in that garden. Made my whole year and I was able to tell that to Tim Malfroy, who was impressed! Anyway, Grant knows his stuff and he is a pro! Plus he is a good cricketer, having scored 2 centuries for the local club last summer! Grant lives just west of the Blue Mountains and can be found at https://www.grantmaundrell.com/ The site could be more informative with more pictures but I can assure everyone that Grant knows his stuff. Plus for those who might be so confident with hard landscaping, Grant is a landscaper too.

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