Is passion the secret ingredient to a sustainable community?

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by Jennifer Riggins

Has the Makers Movement brought back the Business Guild? Or has it always endoured?

In her Monkigras talk, Dormain Drewitz spun off the Monty Python plague bit “Not Dead Yet”, as she outlined areas — like letter-press printing, antique cars, and at times open source — where, when passionate people are involved, things don’t die away, even when technology has made it potentially obsolete.

This year’s craft of software conference was based on sustainability. Now, it’s a tech conference so you’d imagine it’d be focused on generating and integrating with code that doesn’t break. But so far the conference (about a quarter of the way through when I’m writing this) has covered quite a bit about typography, social contracts, and the anthropology of the PDF. (Yes the Adobe file type. And that was really a super engaging talk!)

How do we get to the level of #Sustainability? We combine #passion + #community + commercial to create modern-day Business Guilds & Communities of Practice #monkigras #MakersHour #maker

Jennifer Riggins (@jkriggins)

Why do communities still exist around obsolete activities?

Dormain’s talk was mostly about her passion for letter-press printing, something that developed hundreds of years ago out of medieval craft guilds. But why does it still exist after offset printing crushed it over the last 70 years and then digital printing slaughtered it over the last 20? Well, you could just say, like urban beekeeping, old barber-shop shaves, and butter churning, it’s damn hipsters again holding onto nostalgia they’ve never experienced. But moreover it’s about community and shared passions… and that people are still willing to buy this outdated craft. 

Dormain started her talk revealing her previous passion of her degree in medieval history, taking us through what has driven craft guilds overtime, particularly in that field of letter-press. The main driver was a desire for information and access to printed materials. Seeing this emerging market, these guilds formalized master craftsmen and apprenticeships.
But since the 1990s, when the wave of digital printing came crashing through with its cheaper and faster production, letter-press should have died. But it didn’t.

Shared passion may pivot, but doesn’t often diverge entirely

So, why is letter-press making a comeback?

While it’s definitely died off a bit, Dormain pointed out that letter-press printing is growing again because of many, many people who share her passion. In the world of Kindle, there’s a contradictory new book arts scene around the world of print-making, binding, typography and calligraphy. She even said there’s a $2.5 to $3 billion industry just printing wedding invites alone.

“The mark of the craft has changed while the commercial value has shifted,” she said, certainly going more niche and customized, high end.

But it is still growing, with, in this so-called Digital Age, the British stationery market at around 2.1 billion GBP a year, growing more than three percent in the last five years.

So, again, why is stationery, and letter-press printing in particular, still popular?

One word: Passion.

“Passion is part of the equation for driving this craft forward,” Dormain said. “Why things that should be dead aren’t dead yet.”

There are thousands of people who just love letter-press. Or obsolete, old cars. Or outdated open-source software. It’s real love.

“Not only was it a trade; most printers had an affinity with the history. The smell of ink, the relentless rattle of machinery, the weight of the lead cast letters – a strange alchemy works its way under the skin.”

Colin West, National Society of Operative Printers and Assistants (NATSOPA)

Dormain argues that this craft, like any, has sustained because of passion.
“You have commercial venders in there, the open source community and then the passion,” she said.

The passion is You.

With many communities of practice and business guilds, she lays out the following Venn intersections:

  • passion + communities = hobbies
  • passion + commercial = fine arts
  • passion + community + commercial = sustainability

“The acid test is if it’s actually obsolete, and it still has a community and it still has commercial value, and it’s still going, that’s the actual measure of sustainability,” Dormain said.

How modern business guilds aren’t just about roles and projects

Many organizations need to harmonize practices, procedures, and tools across teams and departments. They also need people to share knowledge and develop their craft by communicating across traditional organizational boundaries. This is the purpose and role of guilds and huddles.

Jurgen Appelo, Managing for Happiness

Business Guilds and Communities of Practice are actually some of the oldest Management 3.0 Practices. Obviously this is focused on businesses encouraging these communities dedicated to areas around the business. But there are lots of uses for these groups and gatherings that aren’t within the context of a team or organization. More often than not, these communities emerge on top of side-gigs and passionate side hustles. (Sometimes it can even turn into a business association dedicated to happiness at work.)

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Maybe Business Guilds are evolving in this Digital Age. Back in Barcelona, I ran a Guiripreneurs Meetup. Named after retaking ownership of the word guiri (rather like gringo) in a way that takes our shared frustrations of running an expat business in Spain (or any small business in Spain) and turns a positive, united spin on them. Guiripreneurs is a Community of Practice built around finding solutions to these problems and networking to solve some of our never-ending bootstrapping. Topics varied, from how to find the job you love (led by a precocious university student) and how to turn your passion into profit to how to market yourself and your value, from LinkedIn profile perfecting to giving a startup pitch to negotiating price.

Also Read: “Why the Spanish aren’t entrepreneurs” and “Why the Spanish can’t be entrepreneurs” (a few of my most popular, older, but still relevant pieces)

We also had a weekly smaller Geek Lunch where a group of ten would sit around a cheap menu del día and really get to know each other past the elevator pitches and business card exchanges. Here networking turns from vapid and often one-sided to actionable, and about leveraging our own networks for how to help solve other people’s bureaucratic, branding, and other entrepreneurial hurdles.

While we all learned from the talks given to the larger 25- to 60-person groups of folks, it was within these more intimate gatherings that true connections were made and small steps forward were taken.

Not going to lie — and as I move to helping coordinate now the London Management 3.0 Meetup, I’m remembering this — organizing any community can be a pain in the ass. Organizers are almost always  some sort of self-employed or hustling entrepreneurs; and Meetups take time, whether it’s finding enthusiastic people to commit to teach and facilitate conversation and exercises, it’s finding an enthusiastic location, or it’s promoting that event so it’s not a great speaker at a great location talking to air. And of course you’re struggling to get good reviews so the movement continues. And then trying to get food sponsors so you can increase your 65 percent or less actual show-up rate. Really, external factors like a little bit of rain can make a huge difference with any turnout and leave ten disappointed people eating 20 cold pizzas.

But when it’s good, it’s really good. You make bonds that help you advance your passion or craft. And while Business Guilds are usually business, they can lead to beautiful friendships.

That doesn’t mean you can learn from some of my mistakes. Wait, we’re entrepreneurs, I meant to say you can learn from my celebrated learning opportunities!

Business Guilds: Do not try this alone.

It doesn’t matter if it’s an online or in-person community (and the more time we spend behind a computer, the more we will cherish the latter.) A lot of my time running that Barcelona Meetup was organizing alone. We had regular attendees, but, with no one else wanting the responsibility, the Meetup ended when I moved to London. With the Management 3.0 London Meetup, we now have three organizers and we make sure at least one, but better two of us can show up on any date, so no one feels left in charge of a big group.

Business Guilds: Sometimes they need to die.

And Guilds also can die. I ran a volunteer Obama campaign in northern New Jersey for two and a half years. What an inspired crowd! We were a crowd of sometimes 50 to 100 overly enthusiastic supporters. After more than a dozen campaigns, I still have never seen anything like it, a community so dedicated to learning as much about their passion as possible and then wanting to spread it.

But after November 2008, this community couldn’t be sustained. A problem Obama for America had across the U.S., not only for volunteer roles — a lot of this passionate bunch took long absences from work and university — but for the thousands and thousands of employees who had few opportunities in the tangled web of federal bureaucracy.

We thought this was not idea but fine. Why did we need a sustainable community when we had a beloved winner? And it seemed like no big deal when he was up for reelection because it was a landslide. But maybe had we kept up that enthusiasm and community, something as horrible as POTUS 45 wouldn’t have gone the way it did. But you could also say that wasn’t our job, but for the Clinton campaign or the Democratic Party to build a passionate community, which it completely failed to do.

So maybe some guilds have to die, but also have necessary reincarnations.

Business Guilds: Different than conferences.

This is where a lot of Meetups fail. Sure, it’s nice to have a short speaker sometimes. But a Meetup isn’t a place for an hour or even half-hour long PowerPoint presentation. You can have something taught, but it’s much more important your community is given an ever-growing list of experiments and conversation topics to take part in with smaller groups.

It’s true that Dormain loves letter-press. But I highly doubt that’s because of the ink and the paper. Sure, she digs it. But it’s about the people. It’s about the Community of Practice she has joined. After all, we’ve never joined clubs because of our passion for a thing. We join it because we share a passion with people.

Tell us in the comments below about inner-office or extracurricular Communities of Practice and Business Guilds that inspire you!

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