Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Meet the Antipreneurs

Bill Goldsmith has always been a maverick. As a radio disc jockey and program director in the 1970s and '80s, he loved creating his own mixes of modern rock and introducing listeners to cutting-edge musicians. But in the '90s, as large corporations bought up the stations he worked for, Goldsmith began to feel increasingly choked by the demands of commercial radio. Programming was becoming too formulaic; he was given less leeway. Working in radio just wasn't fun anymore.

In 2000, with the rise of the Internet and streaming media, Goldsmith had an idea: Why not start his own station, one that would buck the constraints of corporate radio with innovative programming and no ads? Today,, which broadcasts an eclectic mix of modern, classic, and alternative rock, is commercial-free. It's supported entirely by donations from its listeners, 15,000 of whom are logged onto the site at any given time. Goldsmith's company, based in Paradise, Calif., has three employees and about $1 million in annual revenues. Rebecca Goldsmith, Bill's wife, is the CFO and new music reviewer. Says Bill: "I hate advertising. There is this kind of organic sense of community that develops here that could not happen if this radio station's sole reason for existence was to increase shareholder value for a large corporation."

Meet the antipreneurs. Goldsmith is one of perhaps a few thousand business owners who have won both notice and profits by being overtly or covertly anti-big business and anti-advertising. Antipreneurs frequently choose each other as suppliers because they share similar philosophies. Their marketing strategy is targeted toward consumers who have grown cynical about buying products and services from larger companies, whose methods they deem irresponsible. "Cynical consumers perceive that most of the marketplace is bad, lacking in integrity, or not trustworthy, except for a few [often small or local] companies," says Amanda Helm, a professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. "But once they find a company they can trust, they are very motivated to stick with [it]."

Antipreneurs are quick to differentiate their efforts to reform capitalism from social entrepreneurs' attempts to harness business for philanthropic ends. "What appeals to people about us is that this is a positive vision of how the marketplace can and should work," says Adam Neiman, president and CEO of No Sweat Apparel, a five- employee, $1 million Boston company that sells clothes produced in union factories. Neiman says the company's mission is to improve conditions for workers in the garment industry, in part by paying them a living wage and ensuring that they have union representation.

Antipreneurs walk a fine ideological line: They are pro-business and want their companies to grow, but they're against big business. They engage in global commerce while disdaining the machinations of globalization. They profit from the free market, but they criticize it, too.

So how do they get away with it? They wear their contrarian politics on their sleeves and seek customers who do the same. Often those are the so-called dark greens and very dark greens, who marketing experts say are borderline obsessed with environmental issues and feel the need to preach about their lifestyle. In addition, some 37% of people age 18 to 30 prefer to use brands that are socially conscious, with more than three-quarters of that group citing fair labor practices and two-thirds listing environmental factors as chief concerns, according to New York youth marketing company Alloy Media & Marketing (ALOY). Alloy says the youth market has nearly $200 billion in buying power.

Antipreneurs attempt to reach their potential customers without traditional advertising. What advertising they do is likely to be ironic, in-your-face, or highly political. In all cases, it reinforces the importance of buying from small companies that produce with sustainability in mind and use ethical labor practices. One consequence of this highly charged political stance is that antipreneurs face the wrath of passionate customers if they underdeliver or merely appear to.

Although some credit The New York Times media columnist Rob Walker with coining the term "antipreneur," Vancouver-based Kalle Lasn gives the movement much of its ideological weight. Lasn is co-founder of the magazine Adbusters, which analyzes the effects and pervasiveness of advertising by large corporations. He advocates "culture jamming," which he describes as the interruption of unconscious consumer behavior that favors buying over producing. One of culture jamming's techniques is the deconstruction of large companies' ad campaigns to expose what antipreneurs believe is their hypocrisy.

Lasn doesn't stop with advertising. "If you want to change the world, you have to change capitalism into a more grassroots phenomenon, and that means pulling down the megacorporations," he says, speaking with hints of his native Estonian. In the past decade, he says, "A whole new wave of small business is really strutting its stuff in a powerful way around the world, and it includes everything from ethical principles in running business to fair trade to a large and growing movement of people who just want to buy local." Lasn says this movement is gaining strength as people become exasperated with what he calls the traditional "complaint-based" politics of the left—whining lots and doing little. Antipreneurs, he says, actually make a difference by promoting products that have a low impact on the environment or are fairly produced.

Lasn is himself an antipreneur. In 2003 he took on sneaker manufacturer Nike (NKE) and its labor practices in Asia by launching Blackspot Shoes. One shoe is even called the "Unswoosher," a deliberate swipe at the Nike logo. Blackspot's logo is, naturally, a large white spot. "This is in the spirit of playful resistance that culture jamming is all about," Lasn says. "Why not befuddle a few people and force them, through cognitive dissonance, to figure out the contradiction? It's good for them."

Marketing experts see things a bit differently. "No logo is still a logo, and one your social-cultural tribe will recognize," says Michal Strahilevitz, a professor of marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. "It has the same effect of the Nike Swoosh, but it is the logo of a different tribe." This also explains why apparel is such fertile territory for antipreneurs: Antipreneurs appeal to consumers who want to buy products with a kind of reverse conspicuous consumption in mind. "It works better if it is publicly consumed, as that way others know you are an ethical consumer," she says. "You get points for being seen."

To date, Lasn's 13-person company has sold about 30,000 pairs of the $100 shoes, which are made in a union factory in Portugal. Lasn advertises only in his own magazine, although he says he's planning to run an MTV (VIA) spot with the tagline "Rethink Capitalism" within the next year or so.

Lasn has certainly made an impact on other antipreneurs, such as David Wampler, founder and sole proprietor of Simple Living Network in Trout Lake, Wash. The Web company, with $200,000 in annual revenues, is an online bazaar of products and services—information on green living, T-shirts, CDs—offered by small, anticorporate businesses. "I found inspiration in [Lasn's] work and appreciate the approach he is taking and the message he is trying to deliver," Wampler says. His goal is not to get rich so much as to run a business that supports an "outwardly simple and inwardly rich" life. Wampler says he has "purposely chosen to operate as a for-profit corporation in order to model sustainable small business practices."

Antipreneurs do pay careful attention to how their products are presented. Moo Shoes, a $1.2 million New York vegan shoe store with five employees, has made its shop a community hub for information about the vegan lifestyle and about animal cruelty. This spring, Moo Shoes hosted Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, a national agency for stray and abused pets. Best Friends set up pens and cages in the store with about 20 homeless dogs and cats. Customers learned about the agency and the strays, and two cats were placed in city homes. "We care about animals, and getting animals homes is important to us, though not directly related to the shoes," says Moo Shoes co-founder Sara Kubersky.

The store sells footwear that is produced by a tiny universe of manufacturers that use vegan materials and adhere to fair labor practices. Moo Shoes also manufactures its own vegan shoes, called Novaca (Spanish for "no cow"), in Portugal. The company does do some advertising, primarily in publications such as VegNews and Vegetarian Times. One ad depicts a lone cow sitting near a barn saying "Save My Skin: Buying leather directly supports factory farms and slaughterhouses, where, every year, millions of animals are killed for their skins. Think. Before you buy."

Of course, antipreneurs aren't the only ones to have figured out that appearing not to advertise, or running nontraditional ads, can be just as effective as more conventional campaigns. Big companies have caught on, too. "The hot trend within promotions is to try to create an impression that your product is more countercultural," says the University of Wisconsin's Helm. Nissan ran billboards painted by graffiti artist JCDecaux to launch its new Qashqai mini-sport-utility vehicle last winter. Nissan (NSANY) and Blackspot, says Samantha Skey, executive vice-president of strategic marketing at Alloy, "are going after the same customer."

Here, antipreneurs have an inherent advantage. "When you have a smaller company committed to a certain type of social responsibility [from its] inception, one that is really and truly founded on building business around sustainability or fair labor, that [philosophy] is inherent in the DNA of the company," says Skey. "Consumers pick up on it."

Or as Erica Kubersky, co-founder of Moo Shoes, says: "Consumers know more these days than they used to. If you are not doing this from personal conviction, you will never convey the same message."

The other approach, taken by No Sweat Apparel, is to do no advertising. Like Goldsmith, Neiman, president and CEO of the eight-year-old company, depends on word of mouth to spread the gospel of his goods. Using ads to sell a product "really puts a huge amount of pressure on wages," says Neiman, estimating that advertising would add about 20% to his costs. He says his workers in the seven union factories that supply him, located in places as far-flung as Argentina, South Africa, and the West Bank, all get paid a living wage.

No Sweat makes the most of its logo, which features the World War II icon Rosie the Riveter. The brand has a following among the indie music crowd, so Neiman gives emerging bands a banner with Rosie tricked out as a punk rocker, complete with piercings, metal bracelets, and tattoos. The bands often display the banner at concerts. "We call her the dominatrix of labor," says Neiman, with a laugh. "What we are doing is a little tongue-in-cheek, trying to provoke a reaction."

still, since image is crucial to their ability to sell, these companies must deliver on their message in ways other businesses may not have to. In 2006, another union was trying to take over the already-unionized factory Neiman used in Indonesia. This union eventually audited Neiman's factory, and Lasn posted some unflattering details from the audit on Adbusters' Web site this April. It didn't help that Neiman and Lasn were making similar shoes. But the audit wasn't news to Neiman, who says he posted the same details on his own company's Web site before Lasn got involved. "We got blindsided by a segment of the anti-sweatshop community that objects to market-based solutions altogether," he says. In the end, he had to sever ties with the factory he'd been using.

No matter how countercultural he might sound, Neiman still wants to grow his business, like most other entrepreneurs. "This model is scalable," he says. "We can source from as many union shops as are out there, and we can keep growing and expanding rapidly." Sara Kubersky wants to open Moo Shoes stores in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., in the next two to three years. "It would be great to have one in every city," she says. Goldsmith doesn't think his noncommercial ethos means he's sacrificing revenue—quite the contrary. "I firmly believe we are making more money with our anti-advertising stance than we would if we solicited as much advertising as possible," he says. He wouldn't mind if grew to four to five times its current size. As long as he can set the playlist, and the priorities, himself.

[Via Business Week]

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