Twelve Steps to Sustainable Business
Distributed Prosperity Means Breaking the Addiction to Growth, and Circulating Value Throughout Your Marketplace

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 15 December 2017

Nobody cares about how we got here. They just want solutions for how to get out of the trap. CEOs are struggling to create value for corporations programmed only to accumulate more capital, drain local economies, and externalize the costs.

So I’ve been ending my talks lately with specific, actionable suggestions for how companies of all sizes and stages can become more sustainably profitable in the current environment. It amounts to a 12-step program for getting off the addiction to growth. If you need to grow in order to survive, then you’re not a real business — you’re just a brand name on debt.

Here’s the quintessence of the recommendations to be gleaned from hearing my talks, reading my book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, or listening to my TeamHuman podcast. Of course, if you read the book you’ll see the arguments for why these strategies will work, and how they expose the false assumptions we’ve been working under for a few centuries, now. But — as a way of demonstrating the power of making everyone who knows you rich — here are the basic principles.

  1. In all decisions, optimize for the velocity of money over the accumulation of capital. How do we keep money moving instead of piling up? If you are sitting on money that can’t be deployed, you are taking too much out of the system.

  2. Make them rich. Make your customers, suppliers, partners, and even your competitors rich. If you drain the value from your marketplace (like a Walmart that impoverishes its own workforce), your customers won’t have money to spend with you. If you squeeze your suppliers on margins, they will be looking to do business with anyone else at the first opportunity. If you make everyone who comes into contact with you wealthy, they will want to keep working with you.

  3. Employ bounded investment strategies. Think of the US Steelworkers, who invested their retirement money in construction projects that also put steelworkers to work. Or their subsequent decision to invest in projects that hired them to build nursing homes for their own parents. This triple and quadruple dipping is not a conflict of interests, but the leverage that comes with bounded investing. With boundaries, you can generate the cyclone effect required to enhance the velocity of money. Don’t earn ten dollars once; earn one dollar ten times.

  4. Push for a tax policy that promotes revenues instead capital gains. Shareholders are addicted to growth of share price because dividends are taxed higher. Reverse the tax code to promote flow over growth. Dividends and payroll should be tax incentivized; passive capital gains, discouraged.

  5. Organize as Platform Cooperatives. Think Uber, where the drivers own the company. Even if they’re getting replaced by autonomous vehicles, they are going to own the company for which their labor served as the R&D and machine learning. Labor must participate in ownership of the means of production, instead of simply getting a redistribution of spoils after the fact through taxes. Coops like Winco beat shareholder companies like Walmart wherever they compete.

  6. Local crowdfunding. If you run a bank or credit union, instead of giving 100k loan to a small business, give 50k contingent on their ability to raise the other 50k from the community, through advance-sale discount coupons. Customers pay $100 for $120 of pizza at the restaurant when it finishes expansion. Locals invest in their community and Main St, instead of outsourcing investment to the S&P, and draining local coffers.

  7. Develop favor banks and local currencies. An economy is people with needs and people with skills. They shouldn’t be hampered for lack of a means of exchange. Local currencies and favor banks allow for the exchange of value without borrowing at interest from a central treasury. This also means local businesses in the chain can transcend the artificial growth requirement.

  8. Cooperative businesses cooperate. Do everything open source, open API, and without “trade secrets.” Maintaining secrets shows you believe your company’s best innovations are in the past. Sharing secrets means you know your best innovations lie ahead, and that you benefit from everyone being smarter. It positions you as the center of competence in your field, dedicated to promoting a culture of learning and innovation.

  9. Larger companies can enact economic experiments as local, limited trials. No need to turn the whole ship. Sell the ideas to the CEO or Board as public relations stunts, then use their success to promote them throughout company. Walmart can introduce an aisle of locally produced goods; supermarkets can open parking lot to farmers market on Sundays; banks can offer local crowdfunding apps. Promote disruptive ideas as if they are just one-offs, not the radical game-changing innovations they really are.

  10. Run your company like a family business. Family businesses do better in every metric than shareholder owned businesses. They make more money in the long run, have better-paid employees, more stability, less damage externalized to the community or environment, and so on. They are concerned with legacy, the family name, the relationship of their own families to communities in which they live, and the company itself as the inheritance they are bequeathing subsequent generations.

  11. Develop new metrics for success other than growth. Put them down on paper. How prosperous is the community in which we are operating? How many unsolicited resumes from qualified candidates are coming in? How well are our suppliers doing? Do our frontline employees feel they are being supported by the company?

  12. Your goods and services are your product — not your stock. Don’t build a company to sell it to someone else; build it to run it, yourself. Companies are not disposable. An “exit strategy” is for Ponzi schemes. The world is connected. The environment is limited. The economy is circular. There is nowhere to run.