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April 2, 2008

The Growing Pains of an Indie Biz


We finally managed to redesign our web site ( black is the new green).But who cares? Aren’t we all sick of green marketing? Well, yes and no. There’s a lot of ‘talk’ out there—and if it ain’t backed up by ‘walk,’ then yes, it’s all hot air, enough to warm the planet. But if corporations of all stripes and sizes are actually changing for the greener—well then I’m all for it. So as a young environmentalist, as a longtime Buddhist, I’m excited to see elephantjournal.com step onto the dancefloor and say, hey, we got a daily blog, weekly videos, weekly e-newsletter and articles, interviews and reviews…we actually might be getting good enough to serve as a source for news, a forum for community, a site you wanna click weekly to get (and give—we’re accepting applications from green and spiritual bloggers who’d like to share what they’re already writing) the Good Word on the mindful life.But that’s not what I would like to bend your ear about. I’d like to come back to that notion of walking the talk. Independent media has died out by about 50% in the last 50 years. Considering that media is (after executive, legislative and judiciary) traditionally called ‘the fourth estate’, that doesn’t bode well for democracy. Without independent media, citizens have difficulty informing themselves. If we aren’t informed, we won’t be inspired to be active. And if we aren’t active, then our politicians and gov’t bureaucracy don’t need us to run the country. So I always wanted elephant to be independent—to politely decline any and all investment.But here’s the rub: after growing a steady 40% a year over the past 5.5 years, we’re big enough now that I can’t do it alone—I need help editing articles and selling ads. But my merry band of mindful lifers over here, while wonderful, tends to be young—and young folks like to move on after a year or two or three. And that makes growing this baby elephant difficult—it’s hard to build an empire when the ground is falling away beneath your feet. That’s problem number one—a problem I know many of my brothers and sisters in the green business sector are facing, and befuddled by, as well. What to do? Pay your staff well, offer some nice perks ( free yoga, anyone?)…but in this fast-changing world, that’s not enough.What really engenders loyalty is if, day in and out, my staff comes to work and feels empowered, challenged, respected, inspired. Today, we drove to Denver’s Oxford Hotel and interviewed Lester Brown. And booyyyyy was I inspired. Afterward, we stopped by our green marketeer friends, Mighty Karma, who hosted us at O.R. this past January, when we visited Sundance. And last week we interviewed Bill McKibben. Now, those times, and our weekly talk shows, are the icing on the cake. But the rest of the week is elbow grease. And the fact is that with all our growth, smoke is beginning to come out my ears…and while I’m happy to keep going personally, I’m getting hard to be around. I’ve always been proud of our staff culture—we’ve worked to engender a sense of healthy, open communication, and a sense of ‘touch-and-go’ (touch in with me about a project and then it’s all yours) well fact is: this week’s Monday Morning Meeting ended with my longtime accountant politely suggesting that I lighten up on all the negativity—that folks needed more encouragement and kind words, and less taking to task. I was hurt. I turned to my team—my day-in-and-out friends, colleagues—and said, is that how y’all feel? And no one looked up at me, or said anything. Answer enough.If I ain’t good at running a business, and I can’t take on investment, if I can’t engender a healthy work environ, then we as a business are failing to walk the mindful talk.I had a bunch of brilliant mentors in the Buddhist community. They rarely, if ever, took the time to train and teach me, to communicate straightforwardly about how I could improve. They just led by example, and once in a long while bothered to enlighten me a bit on how I could stop banging my head against the wall. And now, for the first time, I know why they didn’t work to engender ‘Democracy.’ I’ve tried to give my staff what I never had—empowerment, independence, trust—and I’ve failed. I’m still editing, selling ads, etc.—and my staff ain’t staying for more than a few years—so I have no way to establish infrastructure, and free myself from micromanagement.

Happy ending: Charisse, founder of GenGreen, called me at the end of today. I went and met with her, her C.E.O., and the founder of Texture, and we all shared our war stories. Turns out, she’s going through the same stuff with her own rapidly growing green enterprise. And then, right next door, I ran into Kathy Dragon (formerly of Whole Foods), my Buddhist brother Mat Gerson of econscious.org, and Dave of Zaadz, now part of Gaiam. And they were having the same ‘staff culture’ discussion, and we all relaxed and opened up and…even smiled.

That’s what’s amazing about good ol’Boulder—and about this greeneration generally—few problems are so solid that a little commiseration can’t open them up. It’s what I grew up with in the Buddhist sangha (community). There’s a chant we do before meals, and part of it goes:

“the unsurpassable guide is the precious Sangha.” Amen to that.

Yours in the Vision— Waylon H. Lewis, editor-in-chief, elephantjournal.com

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