Ed. note: Rob originally published this post as 4 parts. You can find all the separate parts on this page on his Verge Permaculture blog.
I’ve been running Verge Permaculture for five years now, and before that worked as an engineer in the oil and gas industry. Starting a business was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I didn’t know if Verge was going to work out, if anyone would hire me or take my courses, or if I could really make a difference. Keeping these experiences in mind, I recently reached out to some of the best in the field to get their advice for those just starting out in permaculture, particularly around untapped opportunities and common barriers. We got responses from the following amazing people:
The Trick of Starting Out
“The hardest thing about getting started is getting started.” – Guy Kawasaki, The Art of the Start
It’s easy to become obsessed with the logistics of setting up websites, social media and business plans. But that’s not the real work. All of those activities are important, but we tend to overemphasize them when we are first starting out. Business plans help you choose your strategy, and social media plus websites help you define your niche. But those things only become important when you evolve your business and your opportunities begin to multiply. When you are first starting out, there are three areas you should focus your energy on:
Start Small, Assess – I started with public speaking and writing blogs. It was cheap, easy to do (once I got over my fear of public speaking) and I was quickly able to get a pulse on whether Calgary was going to be able to support a permaculture designer and educator. There are many easy and tangible ways to get started that don’t cost a lot; they can build a lot of confidence necessary to make the next step into a full-time enterprise.
Ask for Advice – Ask the people who are doing the work, even if you have to pay them to talk to you. Their advice is worth tons and it will save you time and money in the long run by helping you avoid big mistakes.
Get the Basics – Take a few courses, but don’t get trapped in the course vortex. You can only put so much information to productive use.
“When the line between work, learning and satisfaction becomes obscured then something is going well, the potential for growth and development is huge.” – Richard Perkins
One of the best ways to find your first niche is to focus on your passion. What you need to assess is: Is there a need in the marketplace for the passion I wish to share with the world? I have seen and encountered a lot of opportunity and barriers over the years, so I would like to share my own thoughts alongside the insight provided from some of the industry’s best.
Opportunity is about seeing things differently
What is amazing about permaculture are the number of solutions that are contained within the design system. I often say that the Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) provides people with a solution matrix they can use to run their problems through. A lot of the time, these derived solutions are not considered in mainstream design professions. As an engineer, doing my PDC brought together a lot of disconnected concepts from school and the petroleum industry in a way that I had never considered before. Permaculture became hugely beneficial in shaping the way I saw design, and it is through this transformative lens that I now see the following niches and opportunities for new permaculture students.
Niche #1: Broad Acre Land Planning
Land planning is extremely important. Unfortunately in many cases, this only becomes evident to people after they have purchased land and started placing things where they thought it would make sense. I’ve seen a lot of people either designing their urban lots or moving from the city and starting homesteads, small hobby farms or acreages while missing a lot of details during the process of setting up their spaces. These missed details add up, leading to poor organization, lost time and money, even diminished animal welfare.
The market needs permaculture designers who can see the world differently, are trained to observe whole systems in action. A good example of this can be seen in Ben Falk’s work on the east coast; his work is gorgeous, functional, and making heads turn. Recently interviewed by CBC’s SPARK on his journey and blossoming business, he notes that “the market needs people who know how to plan land and know it from experience.”
Niche #2: Urban Design
“Urban design is where the number are and easy size of installation plus the fast lessons to extend out to larger design acreage.” – Geoff Lawton
There is a lot of capacity for providing sound urban design. Generally urbanites can spend more per square footage than rural folks, so you can create a lot more innovative designs within an urban space. Even if your long-term goal is to work with larger acreages, keep this in mind as you design limited spaces. When you are constrained, you get really good at getting the most out of a small space – this sort of discipline is important for rural design, too. It’s all too easy to splay all your elements all over the place when you have a lot of land to play with.
Niche #3: Franchising
Franchises are one way of helping beginners get set up with help from experienced designers so that they can avoid critical errors from the get go. For example, Ethan Roland has built a business, Apple Seed Permaculture LLC, that he is now franchising out. With Apple Seed you get Roland’s systems, design approach, marketing and business models. This is the first of its type to my knowledge and adds a ton of value for people just getting started who don’t want to grind it out on their own.
Other Business Niches and Opportunities I see
Compost Tea/Extract: People are passionate about their lawns, and there is a willingness to get their lawns off petrochemicals. Mike Dorion, one of my students has started a business in Calgary called Living Soil Solutions, and I know his business is about to take off!
Keyline design: There are a lot of poorly managed and damaged pastures out there. Keyline designs is one way to bring them back to life.
Rainwater harvesting design and installation: If you live in a dry area, knowing how to set up these systems is a potentially huge growth industry.
Municipal Organic Waste Management: Organic waste represents the majority of the waste stream in many cities. There is value in diverting it if you can develop a productive end product (e.g. worm farming, commercial composting, commercial Bokashi)
Living Building Challenge: This is probably one of the most stringent building methodologies. Permaculture knowhow can help here for sure.
Land Development: Buying raw land and upgrading it with ponds, food and fuel systems or potentially building a custom eco-home and selling it – this takes more capital and has more risk but the reward is correspondingly higher.
Horse Property Design: Horses are really hard on the land when they are mismanaged. Getting a few key things right up front can save vet bills, hay costs and produce psychologically sounder horses in the long run.
For other tips on starting a business, check out my podcast Ditching the Status Quo: Using Your Life Energy to Make a Better World.
You Don’t Have to Teach to be Successful
“You don’t do permaculture, you use it in what you do.” – Larry Santoyo, Earthflow Design Works.
One of the great things about teaching permaculture is becoming part of an ever-expanding network of amazing people who want to start cool projects. However, you don’t always have to be a teacher or a designer. As Adam Brock says, “dispense with the idea that running a permaculture business has to mean designing permaculture landscapes or teaching PDC’s.” In Colorado where Adam lives, there are tons of opportunities for “K-12 permaculture teachers, greywater technicians, appropriate technology contractors and bioregional chefs.” If you’re like me, sometimes permaculture simply reinvigorates an old passion like engineering by offering a new lens to look at an existing career.
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 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 awhile 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 as to 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, “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:
“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 PDC’s 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 workweek. 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:
“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.”
“What would you have done differently?”
When asked this question, all of the experts resoundingly responded with the same answer that I give to people: I wish I had spent more time with a mentor before diving in. I get a lot of mentorship requests from my students and I honestly want to take them all, but with two young kids and a growing business there is just not enough time in the day. For anyone starting out, there are four main ways of getting a mentorship:
- Find a way to provide mentors with value: We all have value to offer and those of us running businesses don’t have enough time to do everything we need to do. Find out where there are gaps your mentor needs help filling and fill them in exchange for mentoring.
- Apply for a job: Every once in a while, there will be a job you can get into that will allow you to get paid to help these people. If you ask the right questions you will get some great advice. You also get to see their business operating and you will discover all sorts of niches that you could fill.
- Find an existing business where you can provide complimentary value: Verge is like a boat going through the water: We create a wake. Within that wake, there are income streams we don’t have time to go after. A keen and self-motivated entrepreneur can find ways to utilize the momentum of our company and create a complimentary business alongside us. I am sure other folks feel the same way.
- Offer to pay mentors for advice: Cash is just another way of exchanging value. Chances are you are looking for valuable advice that was hard for your mentor to attain. If you have no value to provide (which is hard to believe), then offer to hire them. I think more professionals should offer mentorship programs and I don’t think that it is an issue to state the value in the form of money. How you work out the exchange is really up to you and them. The one nice thing about paying for advice is you will take it seriously. As I mentioned earlier in my volunteering experiences, we tend to not put a lot of weight on free feedback.
I hope that you have found this series of articles on how to successfully grow a permaculture business useful. As always, I appreciate any feedback or comments you may have!