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The Misfit Economy: Lessons in Creativity from Pirates, Hackers, Gangsters and Other Informal Entrepreneurs

July 21, 2015

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Alexa Clay and Kyra Maya Phillips dive into the informal economy to find out what it can teach us about innovation and creativity.

The Amish are not known for being the first adapters of, well... anything. But Alexa Clay and Kyra Maya Phillips book, The Misfit Economy, begins with the story of Sam Hostetler, an Amish farmer that was the first to begin milking camels in the US. Yes, camels.

Dubbed "the white gold of the desert," camel milk is seen by some as an almost mythical elixir. It has alleged medicinal qualities, particularly in it raw, unpasteurized form, with people the world over claiming that it has helped with symptoms of Crohn's disease, autism, diabetes, Alzheimer's, and hepatitis C. Some even profess that the milk alleviates certain symptoms of HIV/AIDS.

Scientific evidence on its health benefits has been anecdotal at best so far, but word has spread and demand for raw camel milk has taken off in recent years. Raw, unpasteurized milk (even camel milk) is illegal to transport across state lines, and outright illegal to sell in many states, so Hostetler set up a private membership association (or consumer's cooperative), Humpback Dairies, to work around those laws. Because it islegal to consume any produce from livestock you own, and Humpback Dairies members are part owners of the herd, they are allowed under the law to consume the milk.

That was the extent of the market that existed in the US until a Saudi national came to the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, decided he wanted to establish a camel milk retail business, and showed up one day on Hostetler's doorstep. He showed up on many other doorsteps in rural, religious communities (It turns out that the Amish and Mennonite communities are where you'll find most of the camel herds in North America) to ask if they would be interested in partnering with him on an idea he dreamed up as a sophomore at USC's Marshall School—to bring "the white gold of the desert" to the health conscious consumers of California and other American states. That idea became a business, Desert Farms, and that business has become a mission.

Abdul-Wahab struck an exlusive deal with seven Amish farms in Colorado, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Building the relationships was not an easy task. With the Amish's strong stance against technology, it was difficult to sustain communications. "A firm handshake was all I had as a guarantee of a deal," he said. Because Abdul-Wahab is Muslim, he said he could connect with the Amish on the basis of being judged by his religious beliefs. He pays the farmers for their labor and for the milk itself (eighty dollars per gallon), and provides all the machinery and supplies to milk the animals and bottle the milk.

While Abdul spends much of his time arguing with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration—who many times have raided the camel farms he works with—he and his team ("me, the farmers, and the camels") have managed to get seventy Whole Foods stores across five states to stock pasteurized camel milk. Desert Farms also distributes raw camel milk through small mom-and-pop shops across the Unitted States.

Usually, when we talk of misfits, deviants, or heretics in business, we talk of college dropout tech men like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg—college dropouts who started new companies on the cutting edge of science and communications. But, though they dropped out of college and get an honorable mention in The Misfit Economy, these men still got into and attended some of the poshest schools in the world—Harvard University and Reed College. Many if not most of those you'll read about in this book have never seen even a rudimentary education, let alone had access to a world-class higher education. Those who are educated, like Abddul-Wahab, flouted conventional wisdom and went into renegade fields. As Abdul-Wahab tells, "his father," a Palestinian refugee that made millions in Saudi Arabia supplying steel to large government projects, "jokes that he sent his son to one of America's top business schools, and yet he ended up a farmer." Most of what has been accomplished by the people in this book, they've done through pluck, gumption, determination, and street smarts alone.

The characters you will read about in this book are found on pirate ships. they're found in gangs and within hacker collectives. They're in the crowded streets of Shenzhen, the prisons of Somalia, the flooded coastal towns of Thailand. Resourceful and creative, loyal and wily, they are slum dwellers, dissidents, and outlaws.

Call it the gray market, the black market, the informal economy. Or shadow markets ot the makeshift economy. We call it the Misfit Economy. Whatever the term, misfit innovators inhabit a different world—a world that, by conventional wisdom, should have nothing to do with traditional businesses and mainstream markets. However, far from being deviants who pose a threat to our social and economic stability, these entrepreneurial misfits are pioneering new ways of thinking and operating, establishing new best practices that we all can learn from and apply to formal markets.

The authors have distilled five key principles from these stores "unique to the Misfit Economy," and while not endorsing many of the tactics or outcomes of the darker and more reprehensible aspects of that economy, they bring those things out of the dark and make them visible, to "show a broader view of the world economy" and help us glean lessons from it. They will teach us how to "Hustle, Copy, Hack, Provoke, and Pivot," to bring these tactics from the fringe into the mainstream and improve not only your business, but your career and your community. They will teach you to look outside the usual suspects of business, and with that perspective come the lessons on innovation and creativity from a whole mass of humanity working outside the formal economy to support themselves, their families, and their communities—from whatever fringe they may be on.

We have 20 copies available.

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