Over the years, I’ve come to believe that permaculture is one of the most important movements for positive change on the planet.
Not only does it provide an empowering and practical framework for working with the land and communities but also a real chance at meaningful work and right livelihood.
And yet so many people struggle to make a go of it.
As inspiring as the possibilities are – it can be hard. There never seems to be enough time (or money or skills). We can feel the need to be perfect and never start. We often lack the support, models and mentors we wish we had. We don’t have the equipment we wish we had. We’re not sure there’s a market for what we want to offer. Then there’s that damned website. And our accounting is a mess. And how do we market it? Legal issues? Gah.
So, I’d like to share my thoughts on the biggest things I’d recommend to anyone starting out with a permaculture business.
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Rob Avis of Calgary’s Verge Permaculture for helping me find so many of these resources.
Thought #1: Find Your Niche
As the joke goes, “How many permaculturists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” Answer, “14. I to screw it in and 13 to lead workshops about it.”
I think the default for most people who go through a permaculture design certification is to then start a business . . . running more design certifications. But I think we can be more creative than this. There are so many potential permaculture based businesses.
What about Dirtcraft and Cob Cottage focus on natural building? Or Leaf Ninjas who focus on edible landscapes and urban farming? Could you make compost or compost tea? Could you use your passion for writing or video production to tell stories of good work being done in the permaculture scene? Could you focus on the design and let others implement? Or maybe you love the implementing and can let go of the design.
Apple Seed Permaculture focuses more on the types of businesses that you can do with permaculture. He calls it financial permaculture. Earth Activist Training in California – Really focuses on social aspects of permaculture. Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute – One of the older teachers, focuses on high altitude greenhouses. Permaculture.biz is one of the best designers in the world and quite successful. Dryland Solutions focuses on earth repair work. The Soil Doctor, not surprisingly, focuses on soil and uses cheeky headlines like “four days of dirty tricks and secrets”. Little Foot Yurts makes yurts and encompass all of the ideas of permaculture into making shelter. They only use coppicable wood to make their yurts which means they are only cutting trees which will grow back. If you look into coppice systems it is how europeans provide fuel, building, and charcoal wood forever. The Food Garage teaches people how to turn their garage into a grocery store.
Smith and Speed is a bricks and mortar reseller of really cool ethical permie tools. Earth Fort is an educator and reseller of products and one of the main soil food web dudes out there. Murray Halem Aquaponics focuses on aquaponics. Ecoyards offers a compost tea service. Classic Compost provides compost. Every town could have a compost company which would create the feed stock for the tea brewing. Fungi Perfecti – Paul Stamets wrote “Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World” and has a TED talk here . He has courses on how to start your own edible mushroom company and does a huge amount myco remediation around the world. He has invented new ways of using mushrooms to clean up radioactive, pcb, hydrocarbon and lots of other wastes using mushrooms. Growing Spaces is a greenhouse Company in Colorado building kick ass geodesic greenhouses. Could you run a successful urban farm like Growing Power? He grows 3 tonnes of food one acre of land.
Or what about mushboo as a permaculture business? They’ve focused entirely on helping people grow their own gourmet mushrooms. You can watch a video about them here.
Want more ideas? Here’s a bunch we came up with at the 2012 Western Canadian Permaculture Convergence:
How about permaculture for municipal land and schools, Creating natural (or edible) playscapes, mining reclamation, working with cities to create food forests like Seattle did, teaching cooking or fermenting classes, green event planning, green weddings, helping to green industrial parks, corporate permaculture, food preservation classes or selling preserves, green Roofs, micro-breweries using local plants, running permablitzes, creating a compost education centre, creating and running an nnline permie directory/registry, running a custom canning business, a designer bacon business where you make crazy cured hams with unusual flavours, creating and selling permie Kits, offering permaculture Education in Schools, greenhouse construction, garden infrastructure, offering legal guidance to permaculture based businesses, building websites for permaculture based businesses, book keeping for permies, rural and large scale permaculture, creating a five acre demo site, top soil production, running a community supported kitchen, hosting a permie meeting space, rainwater harvesting, oil ?eld Remediation, permaculture for housing developments (new and existing).
I spoke about niching for permies extensively with Permaculture BC founder Javan Bernakevitch. You can watch the video here.
Thought #2: In the beginning, speak to their experience not about your business.
In most industries, there is jargon.
The challenge is that we don’t realize it’s jargon and so we fill our marketing with it.
But, it’s worse than that. Most of our marketing is very self centered. It’s about us. If you could imaging a boat that takes people from Island A to Island B. Your business is like that boat. And the only reason people care about your boat is because it can help them get from one island to another (you can watch a video about that here). But, most of the marketing I see in permaculture is all about the boat. “Come and learn permaculture.” Now, the boat is one aspect of what you can be known for (there are others you can read about here) but it’s not the only one. By far, the most compelling thing you can talk about in marketing (and must talk about in marketing) is the journey you are taking people on. This is where all the relevance comes from in your business. This is what is going to have them actually want to spend money on you.
I recall working with a SPIN Farming venture (see that jargon?) in Guelph, Ontario called Backyard Bounty. They tried to promote their local ‘microfarming‘ venture. But it was confusing to figure out what they were selling to people because ‘microfarming’ is a bit of jargon. In short, they were trying to sell the boat (you can read a more in depth version of this here – look for #5). So, I rewrote what they were offering, focusing on the benefits and results that I thought might actually mean something to the home owner.
Attention Guelph Homeowners:
do you have a backyard you’re not using?
how your backyard can make you the envy of your neighbours, a hero to your community, provide local jobs and get you free delicious food
Marketing is translating.
They’re not buying the boat – they’re buying the journey.
Do you see how the rewrite is not about their company at all. It never mentions SPIN Farming, Permaculture or microfarming. It doesn’t talk about the boat. And it uses no jargon. Now, this was just the headline and, of course, you’ve got to talk about the boat soon – but it’s useless until you’ve talked about why it might be relevant to them.
Consider the homepage of your website. This is the first page most people will see when they hit your website. If it isn’t, it’s one of the first pages they’re going to check out. But most homepages are ‘me me me’. They’re all about the business or business owner. No one cares. Yet. The homepage should be all about the visitor. Why? Because you have three seconds. Three seconds before they decide it’s not for them. Three seconds for them to decide it’s worth exploring more. And in those three seconds all they’re asking is, “Is this relevant to me?” Period. So, your homepage must be about letting them know they’re in the right place or at least helping them understand what place they are in so they can determine if it’s right for them or not. If you want to read the best guide on writing homepages I’ve ever seen, check out this.
Verge Permaculture has nailed this.
Discover Our Practical, Hands-on Solutions For Beyond-Sustainable Change For Yourself, Your Neighbours, Your Community, And The World!
Climate change. Tar sands. GMOs. Massive drought. Faced with world-threatening issues like these, many people numb out in hopeless overwhelm.
But we’re guessing that – since you’ve landed here – you’re among the stubbornly hopeful tribe of practical dreamers who are looking for effective, do-it-yourself solutions. Real-world solutions that start right here, right now, to create a more sustainable home, resilient community and healthy ecosystem.
Maybe you’re looking to cut your energy use and invest in solar or wind power. Maybe you’re imagining what it would be like to keep backyard chickens, start composting your kitchen scraps or grow healthy food on your front lawn (or a year-round garden in your passive solar greenhouse). Maybe you’ve even got ambitions of recycling your wash water, or living in an off-the-grid strawbale house!
If you’ve ever asked, “How can I create a sustainable livelihood doing something for the earth, something I love?” — or “How can I set up a small-scale farm?” — or “How can I harvest wateror stop erosion?” or even just “What is permaculture?” — you’re in the right place.
The page goes on, but notice how it’s all about establishing relevance and speaking to the fears, hopes and desires of the visitor.
Or what about this from the homepage of a neighbourhood composting program in Calgary?
Are you currently putting your kitchen scraps and yard waste in the garbage? If you are interested in finding a better home for them please read on….
Again, notice how it’s all about the real life experiences and issues of the people reading it. It’s not saying, “Composting is important!” right away. No one cares. Before anything else – marketing must get their attention. And talking about our boat is only one way to get their attention. Using jargon is only one way (and rarely the best).
Now, the truth is many people are looking for permaculture events. That word on a poster would catch their eye. They’re googling it. For those people who already know what it is, it’s important. But are those the only people you’re trying to reach? Only the converted? If not, you will never reach them through jargon and giving the title of your boat.
Here’s another example from Red Deer, Alberta.
One of my colleagues was creating a project called the MEGGA Watt project. From the name you, like I, would assume it was some alternative energy project. He was putting tonnes of stuff out about it on social media but I never really ‘got it’. I liked him. Respected him. Wanted to support him. And was totally confused and too busy to really dig into it.
It’s a good note to remember: the confused mind says no. And here’s another one: very few people will work very hard at all to understand you.
As I tried to understand it more, I found myself overwhelmed with jargon: permaculture, stacking functions, obtaining many yields from a single element in a system, systems analysis, Micro-Energy Generating Garage Assembly, Geodesic domes, Growing Dome, environmental footprint, Climate Battery, environmental impact, subterranean heating and cooling system (SHCS). closed-loop, zero-waste systems, aquaponics and aeroponics.
Even the opening sentence sent me into a haze of confusion: “The Food Garage is a demonstration project to turn everyday detached garages from simple storage units into four-season food growing and renewable energy-generating systems using urban permaculture design. You can help build the prototype by contributing to our crowdfunding campaign!”
Some of those terms I understood. Some I didn’t. Taken in together it felt overwhelming. And I had no idea how it all tied together or what it even was.
Until we sat down together and he told me the URL: www.foodgarage.ca
Food Garage? Oh! Suddenly this was all beginning to click.
What do they do at the Food Garage? They turn your garage into a grocery store.
A garden that could feed a family of four in perpetuity and that is powered by green energy.
I immediately got it.
1) Choose a name that is simple for people to understand. If it’s not totally clear, at least make sure it doesn’t send a different message entirely.
2) Make sure the relevance of what you’re offering is clear. Don’t get lost in the technicalities of HOW you deliver that result up front – first make sure they understand the result they’ll get and the problem you’ll solve if they work with you. See if you can sum it up in seven words or less. ‘Turning Garages into Gardens’. Easy. Once they understand that, the details all just help to build the case of how you can get them where they want to go.
3) Whenever possible – eliminate jargon and write at a grade seven level. Get rid of big words.
Since that conversation they changed it from garden into ‘grocery store’ and rewrote the top of their homepage to be so much clearer and speak directly to the benefits:
“You’re about to find out how to turn your garage into a veritable organic grocery store that can feed a family of four for an entire year, produce all of the renewable energy you’ll need to do it, learn practical skills that will amaze your friends and family, and seriously increase your property value, all in the comfort of your own backyard.”
Clarity is key.
Another brilliant way I’ve seen this done is from Verge Permaculture who created a series of ten videos focused on telling the stories of ten of their PDC grads who had gone on to start businesses. Always remember this – people don’t actually care about permaculture. They care about what it can do for them. In this case, it can help them get off the grid and provide right livelihood for themselves. I think these videos are incredible. This takes everything out of jargon and theory and puts it firmly in the world of real world story telling.
Thought #3: Work in partnerships.
There’s the oft’ used example in permaculture classes about how corn, beans and squash grow well together. The beans give nitrogen to the corn and squash, the corn’s stalk gives the bean’s something to climb and the squash leaves give shade to the corn and beans in the beginning. What the corn gives to the squash I have no idea. Selfish corn.
The point is, that they grow better together than apart.
The old school of business is that of competition. But, when I look into the marketplace, I really don’t see or experience much competition. I just see more opportunities to refine my niche and look for partners to grow with.
In my business, I focus on the fundamentals of marketing. If you want to learn how to write your bio, I send you to Nancy Juetten. If you want to learn how to use your client’s stories in your marketing, I send you to Casey Hibbard. If you want to learn to market using workshops, I send you to Callan Rush. If you want to write a beautiful homepage, then I send you to Carrie Klassen. If you need to work on your core business story, it’s off to Michael Margolis you go.
They are all far far better than I at what they do.
And when they run into conscious entrepreneurs who are struggling to get enough clients – they send them to me. When someone is struggling with figuring out their niche, they send them to me.
This means that they get business from me that would have never otherwise have gotten to them and I get business from them I would never have otherwise gotten.
Partnerships and connections are what will make your business eco-system resilient.
When most people look at marketing they think of old, school cold marketing approaches. But I think building partnerships is a better way to go.
Ask yourself this, “Before people hire you, who do they hire or what do they buy?” and then ask yourself this, “After you’re done working with people, who do they hire or what do they buy?” If you can come up with good answers to these questions you’ll have a good starter list of potential hubs and partners.
Here’s a quick video on identifying hubs. And here’s a post on the seven kinds of partners and hubs out there.
There are two keys here.
First, have a place, in your journal or on your phone, where you can keep adding hubs as you find them. Whenever you hear about one, write it out. Every. Single. Time. You want to build a strong hubs database. This will be the core of your businesses sustainable growth.
Secondly, once a week (or more) go for coffee with a potential partner. Learn about their business or project. Try to figure out where you might be able to support each other. Could you partner on an event? Could you send out an email about their offerings? Could you add them to a resources section on your site? Could they connect you with someone important? Etc.
If you keep doing that, pretty soon you’re not only reaching out to hubs, you’ve become one. And here are some more ideas on how to do that.