REMIX – Unemployment, Punk Rock & The Knowledge Economy

We have 20% unemployment in Rock Hill. That’s astounding. So, what do we do about it? Well… we can recruit businesses to this town with tax incentives and salesmanship. But it ain’t easy. The game has changed, and we’re trying to understand how it’s different and what it means to us. One thing is becoming undeniably clear, we must have a local, organic, bubbling-up of entrepreneurs serving the new services economy. If we do not, we will not be able to continue our quality of life here in this place. 20% unemployment is not sustainable. The center will not hold.

There is a lot of compelling activity going on in Rock Hill – from arts to business to sports to developments and more. The youth of Rock Hill has more to do here than ever before. The college students have more of a reason to stay here than ever before. I see thriving pockets of activity that could support retention and attraction of the creative entrepreneur. This is all new to Rock Hill.

I was born and raised here. And the place I knew was a sprawling community of strip malls off I-77. There was no downtown, much less an Old Town. I did not know the history of the place. Only recently, have I heard about the historic hey-day of the Rock Hill Buggy Company, and the next benevolent leviathan to bring jobs – the bleachery. Yet, these histories are equally distant from me – except when I dig deeper and see the mill rock hill of the bleachery and understand that’s where my parents came from, where I came from.

My parents, though, very deliberately “moved up” out of Mill Rock Hill. This moving up, this upwardly mobile class ascension was, for them, the American Dream. The continuation of this class-climbing for me, as the next generation, was to leave Rock Hill – to get out. It seemed like there was this idea that leaving Rock Hill after high school was better and more associated with achievement and staying in Rock Hill was worse somehow and more associated with lack of achievement.

This feeling of the hometown blues is partially part of the teenage phenomenon, of course, but the psychology of inferiority of place was reinforced for me around family, friends, and acquaintances – even out in the general public. And when I started going to high school in Charlotte, it was as if they were aware of it too. “Rock Hill sucks” was commonly understood by youth in the greater Charlotte area and a less vulgar version of the same idea was reinforced by our parents.

Actually, the coolest thing we had going in Rock Hill was Punk Rock. Our punk rock wasn’t the punk rock of the 70′s, of Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols, of anarchy and destruction. Our punk rock was based on openness and entrepreneurship. Our punk rock taught us that if you want to start a band, then just do it. You don’t even have to be able to play your instruments that well… you’ll figure it out as you go. If you want to be a writer and to read spoken word on stage, then just do it. If you want to start a record label or a fanzine, then just do it.

The dominant principles of the punk I knew were not destruction and nihilism, but productiveness and independence – to do it yourself… outside of the manufactured mainstream. You don’t need to be sanctioned by some corporation. You can create your reality from scratch. Just start and see what happens. It was DIY Entrepreneurship, and we didn’t even know it. We wrote our own songs, booked our own shows, rented out VFW buildings, and hosted kids from all over the Carolinas. We played shows all over the Carolinas and along the Eastern Seaboard and westward from there. We even recorded, produced, and distributed our own records. We worked with kids all over the region. We created little businesses, made deals based on barters and handshakes, and sent records to each other through the mail. We had our own punk rock economy.

When I went to college, the idea of Rock Hill being lame was far off. Rock Hill had as much potential in its vagueness as did any town. But to go back to Rock Hill, after college, would be to face the same notions of failure or lack of direction. That is not a judgement on this place as much as it is on me. But that’s what Rock Hill had taught me.

My generation’s perspective on Rock Hill’s inferiority complex (so to speak) wasn’t the same as that of my parents’ generation. Rock Hill wasn’t inferior due to some blue collar / white collar tension. No, it was inferior mostly due to a lack of bohemianism. A lack of music, young people, girls, boys, restaurants, bars, etc. There was nothing to do here, and the town seemed to be lacking the progressive youth generation all together. Cherry Road was a small town mall and a couple of chain restaurants. Most of the bars were the bars of the split generation – those who go to bars and those who don’t – instead of being like the bars of the newer more mixed generation, where a bar is a gathering place, a restaurant, a music venue, and an overall positive social experience.

Essentially, there weren’t any good college type things to do in Rock Hill. There were some bright spots here and there, but for the most part, college students left on the weekends, and when they graduated, they took off never to return. Therefore, few independent restaurants and live music venues and events were able to ever get started because there wasn’t the population here to support it. It was a self-perpetuating, chicken-egg-esque cycle.

So, I left Rock Hill, planning to never return – except to visit my parents. And I took my industrious nature and desire to create my own thing and do it myself – those entrepreneurial qualities I had learned from Punk Rock – and I moved to Asheville. I moved there for college, yet I chose the college because of the town. After I graduated, I stayed. I did not stay for a job. I stayed because Asheville is a compelling, dynamic, bohemian, energetic environment. I didn’t know what I was going to do for employment. But I knew that I didn’t want to live in Rock Hill, and that I did want to live in Asheville. So, I waited tables, worked in sales, and started teaching. Then, I started freelance writing through the Internet. And I started to build my own thing. I was driven to do it. To control my work, my time, my life. I wasn’t looking to get picked up by some corporate entity who would give me a job. I was interested in creating my reality from scratch. We call it entrepreneurship, but to me it was punk rock all over again.

Then, my wife and I had a child. So, after much deliberation, we moved back to York County. I found myself the native son returned, and didn’t really know what to do with that. I knew that I was gonna start my own business, do my own thing. I only ended up in Rock Hill because I found that building for sale for so cheap, and I thought the downtown was compelling from an architectural standpoint. Also, I saw lots of potential in the downtown growing into something vibrant, something authentic and unique.

So, I got to work. I developed a model with RevenFlo in which we provide web teams to organizations of all sizes all across the nation. The core of our business is strategy and project management. The next layer is talent with niche skills: designers, developers, writers, videographers, SEO managers, and more. When we bring in revenue, we are essentially bringing in contracted work. It’s like construction. When someone is hired to build a house, that is work for the builder, the project managers, the carpenters, the electricians, the plumbers, the masons, and so on. Yet, the construction/housing market is bust, and the technology and creative marketplaces are growing. Plus, this analogy falls short also because the Web has turned into a fluid communications marketplace, thus needs of service are constant for most organizations. You don’t build a website and move on, instead you have to put in place a team that functions on an on-going basis as your contracted staff.

RevenFlo is not alone in what we are discovering about knowledge teams and contracting. The model of the contracted worker and the flatter marketplace is all over the map. We are seeing it everywhere. Think of financial professionals who have been laid-off or quit their jobs to open up their own shops. Think of the health care professionals who are essentially independent contractors. No longer does an organization hire a janitor for 30 years, but instead contracts a team of cleaning professionals.

Also, the new worker is a knowledge worker. The new jobs are facilitation, management, and organization. The new assembly line is information and processes and communications. Thus, the new entrepreneur is the person who innovates in these areas, in these services models.

I recently went to and searched 29730, and here are the job titles I got as results to my query:

  • Business Analyst
  • PHP Developer
  • Cost Accountant
  • Web Application Engineer
  • Lead Web Application Developer
  • Sr. Java Developer
  • Tax Manager
  • Service Operations Process Architect
  • Information Systems Architect

And you should see the job descriptions to these positions. It’s all about knowledge, technology manipulation, and systems development.

The technology sector in particular is growing because it constitutes the support sector for the growth and change of every other industry. For health care to grow, for professional services to grow, they are looking at how to use technology effectively, to manage processes more effectively, to innovate and to create.

According to Richard Florida (author of The Rise of the Creative Class, among other books), one-third of all jobs in the US in the future will be in the creative services. Also according to Florida, there are about 25 super-regions around the world to which all of the creative, educated, talented people are clustering. He calls it one of the greatest human migrations the world has ever seen. Even inside those mega-regions, there are cities and hotspots of all sizes which draw the talent in like bugs to a lamp.

Look at the local cities that retain and attract youth and talent – Charleston, Chapel Hill, Asheville, Wilmington, and even Greenville (SC). How are these places different from Rock Hill? Namely, these places have lots going on. They are fun, exciting places to be. These towns retain their college students and bring in recent grads from around the state and beyond. These people wait tables if they have to, but they want to be in these places, more than they want a specific kind of job. These young, educated, people who often are the same people who have access to capital and support, are inventing the business models of the future. They are choosing to live in places that have the youthful energy represented by restaurants, bars, music, arts, etc. And they are creating their own jobs in those places. Young entrepreneurs want to be near other young entrepreneurs. They want to go out and interact. Cities with energy and bohemianism tend to recruit, retain, and development creative talent. It’s an organic, self-perpetuating, migratory process.

I hear conversations among Economic Development leaders who are tired of hearing that a Pizza Shop is the answer to our unemployment problems. That a Coffee shop with acoustic music will fix our economy. Of course, those little shops can’t solve our problems. We need jobs, feet on the ground, and then these lifestyle businesses can open and be supported by those who are here. Right? We need office jobs and daily foot traffic to support the restaurants during lunch, which allows them to survive and thus be open (theoretically) in the evenings and on the weekends. That makes sense.

But. What the new migration economy is teaching us is that we will lose our students and our youth, and we will not get newly relocated youth and talent if there is nothing for young people to do, no active youthful, cultural center in the town. We will not get jobs here because people will not want to come and work here, and businesses will not start-up here, will not move here, and so on. We cannot underestimate the importance of lifestyle to this upcoming generation. Successful entrepreneurs will create smart businesses, and smart businesses will locate where youth and talent want to be. It’s not driven from the top down; it’s driven from the bottom up.

As young punk rockers, we were entrepreneurs, and many of the band members that I knew from the Carolinas Hardcore scene of the early 1990′s are now owners and key staff in successful, entrepreneurial businesses. These individuals are driving their local economies. They want to control their own lives, and they are not motivated primarily by money. Money’s important, of course, but not more important than controlling your time and finding meaning in what you do, and living and working somewhere that has life, culture, and bohemianism. These people have not changed; they’re still DIY. But they are supporting their families now, and they are playing more significant roles in the organizations that affect our lives.

I’ve spoken to people from academia to corporate leadership to entrepreneurs, and I find commonality in observations made about “Generation Y”. I hear things like… they want to control their time, they want to live and work in “cool” places, they are not loyal to a company as much as committed to a project, they seem less motivated by money and moving up, they need excitement and activity and change. They want to do-it-themselves. They want autonomy and to be encouraged to express themselves and explore their own ideas. These are the current challenges of the giant corporations, the small business, and the entrepreneur – to accommodate the needs of this workforce in order to capitalize on it.

You will find the Punk Rock or DIY spirit very present in new creative professionals and in the way they choose to do business. These professionals are attracted to and thrive in compelling, youthful environments. These are the entrepreneurs of tomorrow. We are told that the entrepreneur will save us. And I use that term sincerely in the sense that I believe our nation may just be insolvent.

The new entrepreneur arises from culture-filled environments. They are not recruited to a town due to tax breaks. How much can a town offer a company with no employees that runs 20 contractors. What can a city do to bring in more RevenFlo’s, more Social Design House’s, more Insignia Designs? Well, these businesses are DIY, grass-roots, self-made, and punk rock at their hearts. We are finding our own way, creating our own model, and controlling our own lives. We are industrious and productive and functioning outside of the corporate paradigm. I don’t want a job, and neither do our contractors. We want work. And we choose our work, our load, our lifestyle, and our locations. I don’t claim to understand the economy. Obviously, I am just not getting it, when we are in the worst economic recession since the Great Depression and my business has nearly doubled its revenue from last year.

All I know is that I am here because of the energy in this place. I see potential for an organic blossoming of bohemianism. We already have a vibrant underground music scene, a visible arts scene, knowledge workers, technology and creative companies, and some nice authentic restaurants. We have momentum. I am here because its compelling and fun to be here. More entrepreneurs like me will arise from retained students. More will come when they find out about the compelling activity happening in Rock Hill. The growth will be organic and from the bottom up.

Tomorrow’s economy is a services economy, a creative economy, an innovative economy, a contracting economy, a DIY economy, a punk rock economy. Talent, as well as businesses, will be attracted by openness and creativity. And yes, pizza shops and coffee shops and restaurants and live music create the environment that draws these folks in. But it’s a balance of symbiosis that is hard to strike. How long can a shop stay open waiting for a critical mass? How do we reach a tipping point?

We can’t manufacture this type of growth. The way we support it, I believe, is with cheap space and loose collars. And by cheap space, I don’t mean this fictional notion of “market rate” which seems to justify empty buildings. True market rate equals occupied. If that rate is not enough to pay the mortgage, then that just means the building is upside down. If we are looking to support business growth in Old Town, let’s start by making the space cheap and see what punk-rockin, DIY entrepreneur dares to occupy it. We can’t choose our businesses by type, instead we can make it easy for those who are interested to give it a shot. Even the energy of trying and failing is more compelling than emptiness.

In terms of Old Town, we are on our way to a tipping point. And from what I see, things are progressing nicely.