Book Review: The Misfit Economy

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Lessons in Creativity from Pirates, Hackers, Gangsters and Other Informal Entrepreneurs

By Alexa Clay and Kyra Maya Phillips

Simon & Schuster, 2015 286 pages

 

In a Nutshell: People living on the fringe create unique and profitable business models because they aren’t afraid to bend the rules of the system.

Who’s it for? Business owners, aspiring entrepreneurs

Quote from author: “I expected for the book to be a lot darker than it is. It’s not because they’re not dark — they are people who are trying to rebuild their lives and take what they can from their past into their future in a very productive way, and I find that very light, very inspiring.”

It only makes sense a book that promotes itself with pirates, hackers and gangsters making innovative decisions is going to attract readers and reach bestseller status. “The Misfit Economy” makes the case that there is a significant level of business activity that takes place off the grid with fringe, under the radar entrepreneurs.

Written by Alexa Clay and Kyra Maya Phillips, “The Misfit Economy” organizes itself as a series of vignettes based on the characteristics of misfit entrepreneurs: Hustle (making things happen rather than letting them happen), Copy (which tests the ethics of stealing and sharing ideas), Hack (getting to know a system well enough to make it better), Provoke (using one’s own self-expression to take a stand and shake up the status quo), and Pivot (which revisits an overused and misunderstood word that seems to be popping up everywhere of late).

Misfits can be strangers brought together by similar aspirations – such as selling camels’ milk to Americans, for instance. This example describes how an Amish farmer from Illinois crosses paths with a native of Saudi Arabia living in Los Angeles. The two unlikely business partners realize that camel milk has a viable market with the parents of autistic children (it reportedly helps their kids with their motor skills and digestive systems) in the U.S. Together they form a successful business that finds camels in the U.S. and then contracts with the camel owners to harvest, distribute and sell the milk.

Also featured are prisoner entrepreneurial programs, a detailed breakdown of the business model of modern day pirates, a resilient local effort to bring back an economically depressed town in Ohio, and dozens of stories of businesses that operate in black markets, making money in unique ways far different than what we traditionally learn about.

One doesn’t have to look far in our region to find under-the-radar business ventures. It could be the hobby gardener selling heirloom produce to a local farm market, or the semi-retired person who cuts and sells firewood, or the dozens of individual childcare providers trying to do the right thing in our small communities. These are among the dozens of examples of commerce that don’t fit into the larger, overarching plans of economic developers.

This is perhaps the overall point of “The Misfit Economy,” that true innovation isn’t always defined by high tech companies with a unique idea or intellectual property, but also by people operating in the margins, finding unique ways to feed their families and make it work out of pure necessity.

There are also the micro business owners locally who try something on a small scale, without risking too much time or money, and if the timing is right have it develop into something bigger and better than they ever expected.

What “The Misfit Economy” doesn’t quite own up to are the circumstances where innovators don’t pay taxes, engage in illegal activities, or fail to play by the rules of others. The profiles in the book are inspiring enough to captivate most readers, yet the constant testing of ethical boundaries may be a challenge for some.

Chris Wendel is a business consultant and commercial lender with Northern Initiatives, a community development financial institution based in Marquette. Wendel resides and works in Traverse City and can be reached at cwendel@northerninitiatives.org.

 

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