Is small and sustainable business the new rock'n'roll? I ask because I have just returned from a few days speaking at a conference in Berlin as the guest of Etsy.com, the website for selling handmade and second-hand goods. The conference was designed as a useful and inspiring collection of talks and workshops for people who already have or who wish to start their own small business. So, for example, we had Fraser Doherty, the 21-year-old founder of Superjam, which makes 100 per cent fruit spreads. Other guests included the founder of a city garden built on wasteground in Berlin, and the American media theorist, cyberculture figure and open-source advocate Douglas Rushkoff.
What was striking about the 500-strong audience was the high grooviness quotient: there were no suits and it was predominantly female. It looked more like an audience for a Noah and the Whale gig than a group of thrusting young entrepreneurs. And although we could quibble about the meaning of the word "sustainable", and indeed "small", what is certainly true is that the Etsy crowd represents a new attitude to doing business that is a million miles away from the amoral brutality and greed promoted by TV shows such as The Apprentice.
What permeated the conference was a DIY ethic. Can you do something you enjoy and make money doing it? Can you do it without exploiting people and draining resources? Can you do it with your friends? This was the punk spirit as translated into entrepreneurialism. Indeed, I was interviewed by a Berlin magazine going by the name of PunkBusiness. I think, though, that "radical business" might be a better term for the approach emerging here. "Small and sustainable" is a little vague. I also found the phrase a little comical, and the more we repeated it, the more comical it became: "Is this pizza small and sustainable?" "I'm looking for a small and sustainable holiday."
The point is that if you yearn to escape the stifling restrictions of the nine-to-five in the corporate or state bureaucracy, your only alternative is small business. Every artist is an entrepreneur because you have to do your own tax and invoicing. In my talk I quoted GK Chesterton's famous quip, "Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists." Most of us are working for the megamachine when we should be creating our own mini-machines. This is why, in order to escape slavery and embrace liberty, we need to face up to taking responsibility for our own lives as traders.
Berlin was the perfect place for such a conference. It lacks a financial quarter and, partly as a result, it is a cheap city, with room rents hovering at the €200 a month level, contrasting with the £600 you might expect to pay in London. A beer costs €2 and the hotel costs are around €60 a night. The low cost of everyday living gives the young Danes, Brits, Americans and Germans who flock there ample time to pursue their "projects", as they call them.
The new radical businesses are realised with a lot of wit and style. My hotel, the Michelberger, independently run by a group of twentysomethings, was stuffed with second-hand books, boasted a late-night bar, was adorned with surreal slogans, and its drinks menu and "welcome" literature resembled a punk fanzine. The whole thing was done with a huge amount of imagination and was a million miles from your big hotel chains.
The world of Etsy and of young Berlin is a world of business far removed from the kind of stuff you read about in the business pages of newspapers. Those pages are, in fact, not about business but shenanigans at corporate level, and the greed of the stocks-and-shares system.
Another striking feature of my Berlin trip was that my media mates over there, who have been making a fairly decent living over the past 20 years working for magazines and big brands, are starting to question that model. This is partly due to necessity. They are finding that they are earning half the amount they did 10 years ago, or having to work twice as hard to earn the same money. They are also questioning the materialist value system of that world, and are beginning instead to explore the idea of setting up modest businesses such as cafés, bookshops, galleries and event spaces – as long as they are small and sustainable, of course.
I think radical business could be a real way forward for those of us who by choice or necessity are finding ourselves thrown back on our own resources. It seems that the economist EF Schumacher's 1970s "small is beautiful" idea is back – and this time, it's very hip.
Tom Hodgkinson is the editor of 'The Idler'Reuse content