Advice, tips and useful links

Five key questions to ask yourself

Take some time to write your answers to these key questions. You might want to ask trusted friends, family or your permaculture teacher to contribute or to look over your list.

(a). What am I passionate about (that I can build a business on or make a living from)?

(b). What am I good at?

(c). What are the business opportunities that might emerge from that?

(d). Where can I practice these things fruitfully?

(e). Is this the right context (e.g. place, time) in which to set up a business inspired and informed by permaculture thinking and practice?

Checklist of knowledge and skills required to set up a permaculture business

Here’s a checklist of the knowledge and skills required to set up and run your own permaculture business.

Some of these things you need to have already, but many of them can be acquired as you set up your business. Make sure you know which of these you need to acquire and where you will acquire them from. See the ‘SADIM approach for planning your business‘ for more help with this.

From a permaculture perspective:

  • Knowledge of permaculture
  • Design thinking; be a good ‘accomplished designer’; apply permaculture principles and ethics for design of your business
  • The skills related to your permaculture activities (e.g. farming; teaching; gardening; IT)
  • Knowledge about poly-incomes and diversity
  • For teaching permaculture – knowledge of the subject, plus training/courses

From the enterprise perspective:

  • How to find ‘the right niche’
  • A ‘natural succession’ approach (to making a gradual transition from a conventional approach to making a living)
  • Finance (e.g.  tax claim rules, funding)
  • The will/ability to learn from others, getting experience before you set up yourself
  • A business plan, a clear vision of what you want to do and why
  • Marketing skills, relationships with customers and local people, good branding
  • A successful business model
  • Partnership-building
  • Employing others or outsourcing, if you don’t have specific skills yourself
  • Networks (e.g. relevant to building a customer base, finding suppliers and funding)

From the personal perspective:

  • Open-mindedness and creativity to enable you to respond to changing circumstances
  • The ability to make mistakes and learn from them; be able to take risks
  • The willingness and ability to adjust, take criticism/constructive feedback
  • Determination to work hard and love what you’re doing
  • Support network (friends, family)

SADIM approach for planning your business

The advice we collected from existing entrepreneurs broadly mirrored the ‘SADIM’ (Survey, Analyse, Design, Implement, Maintain) approach commonly used by permaculture designers. An outline of the SADIM approach is provided here, supplied by permaculture teacher Aranya. Design is central to the approach.

Creating your own livelihood plan using ‘SADIM’

You may at first consider your acquired skill-set to be redundant in your new future, but we can apply permaculture to most things. An accountant for instance is good with numbers and those skills are needed in many areas of life. Give it a little thought and you may realise that your skillset could be great asset in the permaculture community. Applying a design process such as SADIM can help to get some clarity on this.

1. Survey

Here are some key questions you could ask yourself in applying permaculture thinking to this topic:

  • Stocks & flows

  • What are your ongoing needs – financial and otherwise? Do some vary seasonally? Might you be able to meet more of those needs directly or through other forms of exchange?
  • What do you have in reserve to support you through a change of livelihood? Finances or otherwise. There are many other forms of capital to consider.

Start by listing your current financial income and outgoings. Look for easy ways to reduce your need for money before seeking ways to increase it.

  • Personal resources

  • What skills do you already have? How might these be useful to other permaculture businesses?  Start here when looking for opportunities.
  • What do you love to do – where is your passion? What are you inspired to learn? These things could become part or all of your future income.
  • Where are you based? Where do you spend time? Are you a home-lover or do you like to travel? Do you have computer skills? Do you love to write?
  • Do you have more energy in the summer and less in the winter?
  • Material resources

  • Do you own or have use of any land or buildings?
  • What tools, software etc. do you have use of?
  • Social environment

  • Who do you have within your network? What can they offer and what might they need?
  • What does the permaculture community as a whole currently look like? What are the primary communication routes? This might involve some research. Where are the gaps? Could you fill any of these empty niches?
  • What limits you?

  • What’s holding you back from doing what you’d most love to do?
  • Are you unnecessarily wasting any energy, time or money? Where could you make interventions to plug these leaks? It’s always better to save what you have than to find more.

2. Analysis

While the permaculture ethics of earth care, people care and fair shares can underpin our new livelihood, the principles can help us in framing our decisions. Here’s how you can apply some of them to this challenge. Can you think of any others?

Multiple elements for each important function – aim to create a poly-income (from more than one source) and ensure a good seasonal spread (work with nature). Choose income streams that would be affected differently by any specific changes in the economy/environment. For example, Aranya travels and teaches a lot throughout the warmer months of the year and retreats to home to be creative, writing in particular, during the winter.

Multiple functions for each element – can you re-purpose what you do rather than re-create some things from scratch? Multi-functioning your journeys is a fairly easy win.

Appropriate scale – choose a livelihood that gives you the freedom to work as much as you need, but no more than you want. One that will allow you to scale up or down should the need arise.

Everything gardens – who loves to do the jobs you don’t want to?

Design for cooperation – find others to collaborate with and create a support structure around you – to share what you learn. There may be niches out there just waiting to be filled, for instance Joel Salatin invites his interns to look for opportunities to create a new business for themselves at Polyface Farms.

Produce no waste – can you make use of waste from somewhere else and find a further use for your own? Aranya came across a business in Brussels growing mushrooms on waste coffee grounds and then donating their own waste as compost to a local community garden.

Edge effect – where do the resources you need meet? Where are your clients? How can you increase your edge (get noticed etc.)?

Start small and work out from well-managed areas – don’t be in a hurry to make changes. Be like nature and play the long game, evolving your poly-income as you gain new skills.

Succession – look ahead and consider how your environment might change and how you can adapt to stay ahead of the game.

3. Decisions and implementation planning

Spending enough time in the planning stage is important, but at some point we need to take our first steps with our new venture. Create a clear implementation plan – Gantt charts are an excellent way of keeping track of projects. Continue to monitor how well things are going, keeping a track of finances and seasonal changes in demand. Tweak as necessary. Ensure you have a good support structure around you. Aranya meets up every few months with a couple of self-employed friends in different lines of work and they share what’s been going well for them and their goals for the future.

And remember, that even the longest journey begins with a single step. What’s stopping you from answering those questions above right now?

Key Enterprise Lessons Learned from twenty years of permaculture business
Skills Trees

Skills trees may help you to identify areas in which you have capabilities or need to build them. Here we provide three skills trees that look at transferable skills with: people; ideas and information; and things. Use this downloadable pdf to create your own skills tree.

Advice from KEEP participants

As part of the KEEP project, we interviewed 20 established permaculture entrepreneurs and held three workshops (in Bristol, West Yorkshire and London), with over 150 participants in total. Here, we share some of the best advice we collected.

Networking and mutual support

People networks, that’s such a huge resource… [it’s about sharing] information but it’s also about support to help each other, to motivate each other, to inspire each other… Find somebody who’s already doing it or doing something similar and go and spend time with them, speak to them, just get their experience really. That’s the main thing.

Aranya, Learn Permaculture

  • Finding people with the right skills to help you
  • Finding people to collaborate with when you need them. ‘I do consultancy, I work little and often, so sometimes I need people to work with me, not business partners, other consultants. But I don’t know where to find them’.
  • The need for People Care; I went on a peer business support course, and realised about the need for self care which a peer support group can help with. Not being afraid to ask people for help and support. Really having ways to look after ourselves and each other. Maybe that’s the thing we can feed back to the mainstream business community.


Growth

I think there’s an issue in terms of permaculture businesses. Probably like us, you start from a domestic basis and then you step up to doing it commercially and it’s quite different, the sorts of things that work domestically don’t necessarily work commercially, so I think that’s a lesson that needs to be learnt.

Chris Smaje

  • Growing; there are limits to what you can do as a small business. Taking on staff is a big jump.
  • A barrier to stepping up from a sole trader to an employer is getting your head round employment law. One suggestion is setting up as limited company of one while you’re still the only worker, and so building up slowly towards being an employer.
  • A need to support existing businesses to grow and to take on employees, not just supporting new ones to start.
  • ‘There is a tendency that when you start making enough money you can employ someone and step outside of the business. But that’s the last thing I want to do! This is about me making my own right livelihood.’

Advice and training

When you work for yourself, you have to do all the things that any business does, so you’re the costing clerk, you’re the salesman, you’re the person who delivers the product or service, you’re the book-keeper, you’re the debt collector, you’re the marketing manager, you’re the transport manager, you’re the PR person, you’re the Health & Safety officer, you’re the strategic thinker.

Graham Bell

  • Get the right insurance, find out what insurance you need.
  • Knowing how to stay the right side of the tax man and the regulations.
  • Doing estimates for jobs, it’s always hard knowing how much time they take; there’s a real tendency to under cost yourself when you are starting out.
  • You will need advice on employment law, accountancy, tax, insurance, regulations
  • Need to understand different business models; co-op, CIC, sole trader, company limited by guarantee etc.
  • One thing I learned from business training was to reflect on ‘what’s your motivation for setting up the business?’  I think that’s a real strength of permaculture businesses which we could share.

Marketing

It’s selling yourself primarily. So you need to get into eye contact with your customers, don’t try and sell them anything on the phone, just get a meeting. Look people in the eye and actually sell yourself, it doesn’t matter what else you’re selling, if they don’t buy into you as a human being they’re not going to buy into whatever you’re trying to sell them.

Darren Woods, Encircle

  • Whatever your product, you need to find a customer who values that product.
  • Think about the actual payment method you will accept; barter or money? When will you get paid and how do you collect? Eventbrite and other methods of online payment? How will you do it?
  • Make your designs look professional, get a graphic designer to help you, they can make a great contribution in order to make your work look more professional. The presentation of your work can be a real advertisement.

Specific to permaculture

My advice would be to go through a proper design process. If you can, write it up and share it as much [as you can] with other people, so share your mistakes and ask for help to try and keep it to the core of being a permaculture business with permaculture ethics and approaches rather than just a sustainable business, to really bring in the people care side of it and that has to extend down to yourself and being realistic about what you can do, what you want to get out of it, what the long term implications are.

Hannah Thorogood, The Inkpot

  • It’s hard finding accountants who understand about poly incomes!
  • The challenge of trying to secure finance when you have a varying income stream; I recommend credit unions
  • Using the term permaculture, I found that using the term can put people off, I stopped using it for a while, I use it again now but only in a quiet way. Some people are scared of it because it’s unknown, others because they have a negative idea of the word permaculture.
  • Have an appropriate business plan; get a business plan that is specific to permaculture.
  • Work hard to ensure you keep true to the permaculture ethics of the business
  • Is a permaculture design a business design?

What participants asked for

  • An ‘ideas factory’ where people work together to create their business ideas
  • A network where we can talk about permaculture business and learn from each other
  • A website where we can ask for advice
  • We should create an online LETS scheme for permaculture business advice. Software already exists that would make this easy to set up. People could exchange advice, skills, mentoring, and the products of their business
  • Can we offer technical tutorials specifically on business issues? There is surely a market for this. Apprentices can offer tutorials within the diploma system, it isn’t limited to tutors. You could set up a tutorial for four people to talk about setting up business, charge each of them a little.
  • We need an appropriate business model, social enterprises need a more permaculture business model. I have looked at Business Model Canvas, a trendy business model, maybe we could have a more permaculture focussed Business Model Canvas

Advice from the interviews

It’s OK to make mistakes

Another resource is the ability to make mistakes and learn from them. So I worry about people in business who don’t make mistakes because they’re not trying to do anything new. The secret is not to make mistakes that are terminal and not to keep making the same mistakes.

Graham Bell, Graham Bell Associates

Working in a remote rural area

Having worked in both rural and urban areas, in an urban area it’s easy to find fellow minded people, there’s lots of organisations and projects around you… The resources and skills needed in a remote rural area are different… you have to use the technology, get used to communicating through Skype, through email, through phone and when you do have a face-to-face meeting, you’re well prepared because some people are travelling 100 miles to get to that meeting. So you have to be prepared to be a bit more isolated… you need a lot of resilience to cope with that because a lot of people would find that hard.

Ed Tyler

Being prepared to let things go

I think being philosophical and accepting that sometimes your ideals maybe don’t square up with what other people are thinking and going with where the shoots are sprouting rather than putting lots of energy into something that isn’t really going to take off, just letting go of things. You waste a lot of energy by pursuing things that aren’t working.

Ed Tyler

The meaning of success

When you’ve excited people that you work with, that you’ve really transferred something, some spark, drive and enthusiasm and inspiration. And financial comfort, in terms of being able to pay the things that need paying.

Klaudia Van Gool

Loving what you do

I caught up with friends last year and they asked ‘Oh, how’s work going? and I replied ‘Oh yeah it’s good’. I was on holiday with them, but I then said ‘I can’t wait to get back’ and they said ‘What?!’. Because normally with work, it’s work, but for me, I’ve never really seen this as work, it’s so much more than that and I think it’s hard for your close family and friends to understand that but when they hear you say things like that, it kind of just clicks.

Natalie Frost, Urban Biodiversity CIC, Newquay

Designing your business with SADIM

Have a permaculture design for your business. The first thing is to start with your goal or your vision, why do you want to do it? And then the survey is looking at what other people are doing, maybe there’s someone else doing exactly what you want to do and if it works for them, learn from them and you can replicate that system. It might be good to apprentice for someone. And then the analysis, what’s needed? What’s out there? What’s in alignment with what you want to do and why? How have other people got around [problems and barriers]?… And then the design bit is following through, starting with making that business happen. And then doing it…

Jo Barker, Dynamic Equilibrium

Integrating multiple incomes

One of the main things I do is teach…  I teach courses, permaculture introductions. I’ve taught on [Permaculture] Design Courses. I teach Forest Gardening. I also do Goal Setting which is a life coachy one and then I work as a tutor [on the Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design] so I have apprentices.  And then another thing I do is design, mostly land design so I design forest garden systems… I’ve been involved with community gardens as well and done loads of those. I look after three of those as a gardener… And the third thing is the therapeutic healing people stuff, and I’ve felt really excited about Kinesiology as a healing modality. I’m just trying to integrate everything at the moment.

Jo Barker, Dynamic Equilibrium

Finding balance

It’s been interesting reflecting around International Woman’s Day about trying to balance being the best Mum I could be with being the best teacher I can be and being the best woman I can be, being the best ‘me’ I can be. There’s a lot of different things to balance. So you normally fail most of the time but that’s okay.  I think that’s probably the main challenge and learning to let some things go or realise what gives and being okay with that.

Hannah Thorogood, The Inkpot

Sub contracting the tasks you don’t enjoy

We’re not officially an employer, we’re not doing PAYE. I subcontract self-employed people. That started with somebody cleaning the house because I realised that was something that was one of my lowest priorities. That had a massive positive impact on me… And now we have awesome Viv who works very part time and she does our marketing, convening, is our website guru as well. It was identifying the weaknesses in my system and where my motivations were…and I realised that a weak link for me was actually getting people to be on the courses that I was running. I’m not arrogant enough to think I can do everything or that I want to. So buying in people’s time when we need it.

Hannah Thorogood, The Inkpot

Including the permaculture ethics

I think a commitment to the ethics is essential. Everyone remembers the earth care because it’s a sustainable thing ‘oh, you’ve got to save the Earth’, but the people care stuff, being nice to each other and sharing the surplus, it’s those bits which seem to get forgotten. Without those, you almost couldn’t call the business a permaculture one. And how we interpret that is entirely up to us… it’s not about judging what other people’s choices are because we’ve just got to focus on our own, but when we’re questioned, we need to be accountable in that way… if we’re saying this is permaculture then we need to show that we care for people, the earth, and are sharing surplus.

Jo Barker, Dynamic Equilibrium

Do your research before you begin

Do some research and try and visit as many other similar projects as you can andwith an open mind. Because I think people often tend to have a fixed vision as to what they want so the more specific but also the more open-minded the better… And be aware that running a business is quite a big jump up from maybe growing something in your garden or producing a few eggs to sell to somebody.

Chris Smaje

Be determined

There’s something there about determination, not being daunted by the first hurdle. That’s stubbornness, ‘I’m f@%*>#g going to do this whether you like it or not’ type thing. And just that compellingness of having that vision and I think that’s what it comes down, having a really strong vision that you really believe you’re going to make that real.

Wilf Richards, Abundant Earth