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What’s The Hardest Part of Running a Triple Bottom Line Business? Profit

February 13, 2014 Category: Uncategorized


Photo of The Head & the Hand Press Workshop

When I first started The Head & The Hand Press, I attended the Sustainable Ventures Institute hosted by the Sustainable Business Network and was posed with a question that would set the course for the company— Did I want to be an mission-based organization that happened to publish books, or did I want to be a first class publishing company that happened to have a mission?

We picked the latter.

The mission of The Head & The Hand Workshop is to provide writers with the guidance, resources, workspace, and support they need to publish their work and connect with the Philadelphia literary community. We tend to work with writers who are not established in the major literary scenes of places like San Francisco or New York. We also like to work with writers who were not born and bred in the academic world of the MFA. That’s not to say that we don’t work with trained and talented writers. It’s just that the people we tend to attract do not have the industry connections to excel in the publishing world.

The second most important decision was to structure the company as a for-profit. Part of this came out of a need to expedite bureaucracy. It only took a few days and a small amount of money to become designated as an LLC and get a bank account. However, I also hinged this decision on a mentality that if the goal was to sell our books to educated, middle class adults, then those adults should pay for our books. Add a diversified income stream and innovative ideas like the Community Supported Publishing (CSP) program, and we believed we could achieve our fiscal sustainability while upholding our other sustainable ideals such as using recycled paper, domestic printers, and services from local businesses and freelancers.

For the most part we have achieved this balance of producing a quality product in a way that is good for people and planet — although it does pain me that in order to have competitive distribution, we need to ship our books to California just to have most of them make their way back to the east coast. That decision, along with a host of others, is what brings us to the hardest part of the triple bottom line of sustainable business — profit.

From our Partners

It comes down to semantics. Whenever the words “for-profit” are used to describe a business, that business is automatically thrown into the deep end of the shark tank with the rest of the for-profit world. Conversely, the designation “non-profit” seems to invoke the martyred image of those who go without so others can have some.

What’s discounted are the many small business owners who are just trying to make a living by contributing to the economy and the many non-profit executives who are making robust six figure salaries. I’m not the first person to point this out.

However, when I’ve had this conversation with a well-intentioned supporter, that person told me of some “502-b-whatever” that is being created in Seattle that will be a whole new designation for small business. While this excites me, it also brings to mind the scene from the film Trading Places when a down and out Dan Akroyd is trying to sell a fancy watch at a pawnshop by touting that it can tell time in 15 different time zones. After Akroyd says it’s worth at least three thousand dollars, the pawnshop owner replies, “Well here, in Philadelphia, it’s worth $50.” I’d love to make the case of new, exciting business designations to my landlord, but he’d probably rely, “Well here, in Philadelphia, your rent is due.”

I feel that whenever the words “for-profit” are used to describe a business, that business is automatically thrown into the deep end of the shark tank with the rest of the for-profit world. Conversely, the designation “non-profit” seems to invoke the martyred image of those who go without so others can have some.

So as you may have read on Generocity, the Workshop portion of The Head & The Hand is now structured as a nonprofit under The Culture Trust of Greater Philadelphia. In short, Culture Trust provides a group of organizations with nonprofit status and fiscal oversight for a small percentage of all revenue, grant money and donations received. It’s more than fiscal sponsorship and less than having to start a nonprofit.

Keeping Pace

The need for this kind of service comes from the difficulty of getting investment as a for-profit enterprise.Even though the publishing operations remain a for-profit LLC, and even though we do sell memberships to our Workshop, we could not generate enough revenue to be viable. And after bootstrapping the funds to get our publishing operations off the ground, I could not take on the risk of further financial liability while also trying to build out the industry with the Workshop.

A similar problem is happening in Philadelphia’s fashion world. We are home to so many creative and smart clothing designers that I don’t have space to name them all. But as reported in The Inquirer on Monday, many are struggling because Philadelphia no longer has an adequate textile manufacturing sector, leaving it on these young entrepreneurs to not only design clothes, but also rebuild the industrial infrastructure.

As the article pointed out, there are some politicians and city officials who have made manufacturing their cause. But as long as access to capital is so prohibitive when you designate your business a “for-profit,” most business don’t have a long enough lifeline.

Right now, a young person can simply fill out a FAFSA for a hefty, low interest loan to attend a four-year university to pursue a degree in 17th Century British Literature. But a young entrepreneur has to hustle, scrape by and take on huge risk just to create a business. Although our government has collectively decided that the study of Milton and Shakespeare is a benefit to society, I don’t understand why it can’t do the same for people trying to start businesses and create jobs.

True sustainability dictates that we can’t have a highly educated and intellectually curious citizenry without job opportunities to employ those talents. The Head & The Hand is trying to find that balance and gain sustainable access to capital by formalizing our dual identity of sound business and social good in our for-profit/non-profit hybrid model.

Although it’s daunting to concurrently contribute to the construction of an industry while trying to run a business within it, we hope that we can keep pace.

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