Despite an unconventional approach to an underdeveloped field, Tad Hargrave finds success
by Duncan Kinney
The Green Guru
Arguing in favour of a pay-what-you-can model would probably earn you a failing grade in any of Canada’s accredited business schools, but Tad Hargrave’s unconventional approach to doing business is getting more than a passing grade from his clients.
Hargrave is the owner of Radical Business, a marketing firm that he playfully describes as one that offers “marketing consulting for hippies.” He works with local artisans, social entrepreneurs, green business people and other naturally passionate individuals who might not have Hargrave’s keen eye when it comes to marketing their skills and products.
He doesn’t set a price for his services, which include seminars and one-on-one business coaching. Instead, he lets his clients decide what his services are worth.
Hargrave first came across this unconventional business model as a 12-year-old, standing in awe of the ball-and-cup magic routine of street performer Gazzo Macee. He still remembers the very words that Macee used at the conclusion of his routine in order to get the crowd to open up their wallets.
“Ladies and gentleman,” he would say, “I’m not paid by the festival to be here. We pay our own way, and the only way we make money is from donations from people like you.”
He decided to apply Macee’s model to his own work after a series of unfortunate events. Six weeks away from a seminar planned for Fairfield, Iowa, Hargrave’s computer bit the dust. As a result, he was unable to market his own marketing seminar, and only 16 people showed up for his pitch.
“I had totally resigned myself to losing money on that trip,” says Hargrave, who had originally planned to charge $2,000 per person for the seminar. Instead, in light of the poor turnout, he changed his approach on the fly. “Look, everybody, I screwed the pooch,” he told the sparse crowd. “No one has enrolled. If you want to sign up, go ahead, but just pay whatever you want at the end.”
In fact, Hargrave ended up making money on that trip, and in the seven years since, he’s managed to support himself using this unconventional business model.
I met Hargrave at Make It Edmonton, a craft fair held in an airport hangar outside Edmonton. This was no regular craft fair though and mercifully there wasn’t a single birdhouse in sight. Instead, on an elevated stage, were two DJs playing funky house music, while the hangar itself was packed with Edmontonians checking out the works and wares of local designers, artists and craftspeople who were selling things like handmade pens, bird feather fascinators and leatherwork.
Hargrave was in his element. Sporting two days of stubble, he’s casually dressed and initially soft-spoken, but he radiates a quiet intensity when he talks about the things in which he believes.
There are no pre-cast moulds into which Hargrave’s personality fits comfortably. He’s protested outside of International Monetary Fund meetings in Washington, D.C. He’s hung out with radical activists and anarchists, and when asked about confrontations that he’s had with the authorities, he coyly declines to respond.
But Hargrave is not just intensity and insurgent causes. He’s been a street magician. He’s also done improvisational comedy for the past 18 years. In fact, he even told a cheesy joke during our interview. “How do you find Will Smith in a snowstorm?” he asks. “It’s easy, just follow the Fresh Prince.”
Hargrave attended a Waldorf school in his formative years where he knitted scarves from handspun wool, made organic mint tea and got a thorough dose of the Norse, Roman and Greek myths through grades four, five and six. His mom was a distributor of homeopathic health products. Yet, true to form, the now 34-year-old didn’t exactly go with the flow.
“It’s so embarrassing. I ended up working at a Tony Robbins franchise,” says Hargrave. “I worked with a franchise for two or three years. Did some sales, led some workshops. It was ridiculous, I was 21 years old leading workshops.”
He dropped out of the self-help field and found himself on the radical end of politics, participating in sit-ins, hanging out with anarchists and attending the sometimes violent and always noisy anti-IMF rallies. In the end, the one-time self-help promoter found a way to blend his passion for political causes and his interest in the art of promotion. “I had this lefty-leaning background that got more and more radical over the years but I also had this really nerdy love of marketing,” says Hargrave.
“There was a lot of sitting around the bar and talking with friends and they’d tell me their cool ideas and I’d be like, ‘your marketing ideas are terrible!’ and I was giving a lot of free advice. I thought, well, I really like doing this, maybe I should charge for it.”
Hargrave isn’t preaching slick new methods, and he’s not selling thousand-dollar professional retreats. He’s not going to tell you that Twitter will fix everything, or that you can Facebook your way to success. Instead, he focuses on simple, common sense marketing lessons, like the art of being clear about what you’re offering, the need to speak in a language people can actually understand and the importance of lowering the initial risk for the consumer.
“It was so common sense but so inaccessible. The work that I value the most would never get access to this kind of stuff.”
With a client list including massage therapists, osteopaths, organic dog biscuit makers, green realtors, permaculturists and other unconventional entrepreneurs, Hargrave spreads his marketing know-how far and wide over Edmonton’s growing green economy.
His other major project, Edmontonians Supporting a Green Economy (E-SAGE), is a network that connects Edmontonians with the green service providers and companies in their community. Before E-SAGE, which he founded three years ago with Maureen Abram, Hargrave struggled to find green businesses in town. “We just saw that there wasn’t a hub for green business and the green lifestyle.”
Hargrave decided to build just such a hub by creating E-SAGE, the central features of which are a regular electronic newsletter and Facebook group that has over 2,000 members. A typical E-SAGE newsletter spotlights community fairs, clothing swaps, political events, bike activism, movie nights, parties, workshops, fundraisers, festivals and more.
Still, despite the success that E-SAGE has enjoyed, Hargrave still routinely finds that people are surprised by the number of green services and products that are available in the city. “There seems to be a genuine sense of surprise that, ‘I didn’t know that Edmonton had all of this cool stuff.’”
By organizing, aggregating and pushing these events out to people all over Edmonton Hargrave feels a real community is developing. It’s not straight up business development, but instead what he describes as “a lot of community building. A lot of tending the soil and making it fertile for a lot of things to happen in that soil.”
Next Up is a series of profiles of emerging leaders in Alberta’s business community and public life.