Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Virtual companies. Real development.

I don't have any potential customers within a hundred miles of where I sit, here at company HQ.

Our employees all live in other states. Just about nobody in my town knows anything about our current business. Our last biz ran from here for more than 25 years and almost nobody local could tell you they ever heard of us.

This is damn near perfect.

Virtual companies are always assumed to be internet techie stuff. Think foosball at work and 14 year old millionaires. Virtual companies still carry that patina of irrational exuberance. All that splatter from the bubble burst makes everyone put away their checkbooks. Right?

We're a manufacturing company. A pretty cool virtual manufacturing company. Our company is ripping through 100%+ growth years. We're winning innovation and new product development awards. Exporting to Europe, Canada, Mexico and Africa for goodness sake. We've got some of the biggest firms in the world saying stuff about us that belongs in Valentines' Day cards. So how does being virtual help here? Easy. Nobody knows we're here. Same with the last biz. Nobody bothers us. We can work all that much harder and smarter solving customer problems in Cleveland and Johannesburg and Charlotte and Detroit and Mexico City. Surrounded by cool free stuff, in a really nice place.

Virtual companies? What can they do? Who ever heard of virtual companies these days?

Of course nobody hears about them. Little checks don't make noise.

The quiet little checks we write here in our virtual HQ home town don't get in the papers. They go to our city gardens. They go to CPAs. Checks go to lawyers. They go to school fundraisers and graphics companies. Our checks go to St. Vincent's and Goodwill. Our checks go to intellectual property law firms. Restaurants, office supply stores and internet service providers. Financial planners, web developers and our wonderful farmer's market. Quiet little checks. Nobody cares. We just contribute to the background noise that keeps the lights turned on. I propose that this is important. Keeping the lights turned on doesn't make headlines but it's a core value to most sustainable enterprises, including home towns.

And, yes, we outsource. OK, nothing so headlinish as China, et al. Ours is a little less inflammatory. It doesn't make the news. We manufacture mostly in Illinois. We outsource to other towns in my home state of Wisconsin. We outsource to exotic locales such as Ohio, California, the Carolinas, Indiana, Michigan, Arizona, even to the exotic forest fringes of Minnesota. My employee count here is low so we don't matter a bit to the big commerce types. They've never even heard of us. That's just fine.

My friend and neighbor Margaret Krome is a good writer and a wonderful generalist (the top end of my compliment scale). She writes about community development issues with so much common sense that I sometimes think she must not drink beer. Margaret wrote a column about our virtual company and the potential beneficial roles these kinds of companies can play for their communities.

What makes a good headquarters town? How did we make it work for our family? What attracted our interest and our checkbook? It wasn't the business climate. It wasn't access to venture capital. It wasn't the ability to network. It wasn't the culmination of a long search for the lowest cost of living numbers.

We set corporate and family roots because of the libraries. It was the parks, the schools, the safe streets and the culture. Basically, the free stuff. We felt we could start our businesses and live our lives here still keeping a decent quality of life without the need for a big income. It's worked.

Defending the commons could be made to look like some squishy do gooder program, but it's not. Defending the commons is pure hard ball. This is tough, free enterprise, self interest stuff. Making high value, family enhancing quality of life options accessible to as many people as possible builds a more secure economic base for all of us as well as nicer places to live (damn, not that same old benefit again).

Better quality of life benefits give people and families more security. Security gives people more capacity for taking reasoned economic risks like starting new enterprises. If nobody is taking risks, we're all going backwards.

We should be building our communities from the inside out, but we're usually not. We should be strengthening the commons, not ripping them up. I think we should do it, not just for posterity, but for our own current self interest. What's going to attract the new sustainable jobs? Parks, safe playgrounds, and did I say libraries?

Lots of community development people would love to land a car plant or some giant retail distribution center. I don't blame them. It makes their jobs easier. It's also appropriate for many economies that are set up to house them.

But there are other paths for other communities. Headquartering virtual companies doesn't make headlines like landing car plants, but for many communities, it's smarter to win the smaller battles. Virtual companies will headquarter in towns that deliver meaningful, free, easily accessible quality of life benefits. Many little economic miracles and many small enterprises can flourish with these in place. Everybody in the community wins.

When my neighbors think of virtual companies, I want them to think of pet food delivery services over the internet. I want them to think I'm nuts. Then, I want them to go away and leave me alone.

We've got a project to close in Detroit.

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