The Indispensables

A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

—Margaret Mead

It’s all a bunch of crap. Just be a good person.
—my father

Of course, it all seems obvious now but we were met with a lot of skepticism when we started. Under- and unemployed people were considered failures and outcasts, not world-beating innovators. Nobody wanted them. Nobody even wanted to talk about them.

Then, Guy Epstein—somebody nobody ever heard of—started making noise. Well, a little noise. He put up a website ( arguing that people who got laid off didn’t lose their skills, only their jobs. For some reason employers didn’t realized that. I know that seems impossible to believe now. But at the time, people didn’t recognize that layoffs were a clear indication of management failure, that executives had steered their companies into icebergs.

The website was pretty invisible for awhile, but the memes Guy produced got very popular very fast. Little square pictures (usually blurry) with unforgettable phrases on them and the URL of the site.

Do you remember the early ones?

Underemployed & Over-Skilled.
Join Us & Change the World.

Lost Job, Not Skills.
We’re Under- and Unemployed
& We’re About To Change

And there was the snarky one:

Fresh Underutilized Talent.
Our Souls Haven’t Been Deadened
By Years In A Cubicle.
We’re Ready.

Before long, the website became the hub of a movement. The under- and unemployed began getting recognition. They started being called The Indispensibles or Indies.

I discovered the site pretty early. I thought Guy was talking directly to me. My entire career, I’d been a square peg in a round hole. I asked impertinent questions. I was also passed over for promotions. When layoffs came, I was invariably in the first round. Customers loved me, but management didn’t. And that’s what counted back then.

Guy claimed that unemployed people were wasted talent, that they could do anything and usually do it better than conformist drudges. He said that indies were usually creative imaginative people and that passion combined with imagination beats everything else. So, I ran with it.

I always loved clothes. I’d been an accountant (before the layoffs) and knew nothing about the clothing business but I knew what I liked. My tastes were eclectic, but I thought quite good. So with the help of the movement, I started a clothing company.

Threadling started small. I bought a sewing machine. I found a fashion design student (via and Eileen and I came up with a few items of clothing that we thought might work. I approached some local boutiques, and persuaded two of them to carry our clothes. A local “maker” factory did the production versions of our clothes for us.

Like other Indies, we hired only under- or unemployed people. We needed imagination and energy; untapped talents bursting to create.

In truth, our early work wasn’t very good and didn’t sell well. We were still finding our footing. But we did have imagination and soon enough, we invented an accessory that became a runaway hit: the lanyard.

Until the Threadling version came out, a lanyard was something you wore to display an ID at a convention. You wouldn’t wear one if it wasn’t required. You certainly wouldn’t wear one while walking around in public. A lanyard was dorky before we made it cool.

The base version consisted of a slickly made leather strap and a blank plastic holder. You created your own designs by drawing on the insertable blank white card. Later higher-priced versions used actual limited edition artwork—including one design by a member of the Wyeth art clan who was taken with the whole indie movement.

While I was working on Threads, Guy built up his email list and his movement—no, our movement—grew. At the same time, Guy assembled a small team of indies and created what we now call an Alt PR Marketing company. He called it Philadelphia Communications, after the city where he lived, and started with pro bono campaigns for the movement and for some of the new and emerging indie businesses. The old line companies were skeptical, to be sure, but when they saw the effect that a few thousand indie re-posters could have, they began to take Philadelphia Communications seriously. Within a year, the company had a decent basket of paying clients and Guy himself drew a modest but livable salary. He insisted that the creative team get paid more than him, and that became a standard practice for indie companies—producers are paid a bit more than executives.

But here’s the thing; new businesses, even new indie businesses, are naturally in for a tough time. Business is hard. And even though Threadling is winning customers in the market place for its now classic creations, our last two new lines haven’t done well. In fact, they’ve bombed. I think I’m losing my touch, my ability to pick winners.

It’s not like we’ve got anxious stockholders. Threadling is a b-corp like most bigger indie businesses. But revenue still needs to exceed expenses.

As you know, layoffs are a last resort and a public confession of management failure. I don’t want to fail and I especially don’t want to fail the wonderful team of people who work with me. More than that, old school shark business people are looking for an opportunity to redeem their archaic command and control system. It’s tough, they say, but that’s how the real world works.

They haven’t got a chance. There are dozens of solids indie companies in a variety of industries and most of them are kicking butt.

This is personal. I don’t want to end up with a reputation of being a big loser like Jack Welch. That’s what they call failed CEOs who layoff people now: Welchers. They are people who broke the implicit executive-worker contract. The CEO is expected to provide the tools and freedom to enable workers to succeed. And workers get the bulk of the financial largesse they produce. A good executive is valued, but no more than any other competent worker.

I think I’m just worn out. I need a change. I’ve asked Margie—she works in sales at our Portland, Oregon store—to take over my role. I hope she accepts.

I’d like to try my hand at designing furniture. Woodworking. Using my hands and some power tools. Only a dull person wants to do the same job forever. The indie way is to encourage people to try different roles to keep it interesting. Anyhow, I’ve got a new furniture style idea to try out. I think it just might be another hit.