The examples I like to use are the microbakery using an ordinary household oven, the cab service whose main capital equipment is the family car and a cell phone, etc.
An outstanding recent example of this phenomenon is Shawn Wilbur's Corvus Editions, a micropublishing outfit specializing in classic anarchist texts from the nineteenth century and Wilbur's own publications (e.g. LeftLiberty, mentioned in the previous post). Here's their catalog.
Wilbur, in a blog post months ago, described his experiences in a lifetime in the bookselling trade:
My little store was enormously efficient, in the sense that it could weather long periods of low sales, and still generally provide new special order books in the same amount of time as a Big Book Bookstore.
The problem was that, with the state-imposed paperwork burden associated with hiring help, it was preferable—i.e. less complicated—to work sixty-hour weeks. The state-imposed administrative costs involved in the cooperative organization of labor amount to an entry barrier that can only be hurdled by the big guy.
After some time out of the business of independent bookselling and working a number of wage-labor gigs in chain bookstores, he recently announced the formation of Corvus—a micropublishing operation that operates on a print-on-demand basis.
In response to my questions, he also described in greater detail his own virtually zero-overhead business model in a post to the anarchy email list:
In general..., Corvus Editions is a hand-me-down laptop and a computer that should probably have been retired five years ago, and which has more than paid for itself in my previous business, some software, all of which I previously owned and none of which is particularly new or spiffy, a $20 stapler, a $150 laser printer, a handful of external storage devices, an old flatbed scanner, the usual computer-related odds and ends, and the fruits of thousands of hours of archival research and sifting through digital sources (all of which fits on a single portable harddrive.) The online presence did not involve any additional expense, beyond the costs of the free archive, except for a new domain name. My hosting costs, including holding some domain registrations for friendly projects, total around $250/year, but the Corvus site and shop could be hosted for $130.
Because Portland has excellent resources for computer recycling and the like, I suspect a similar operation, minus the archive, using free Linux software tools, could almost certainly be put together for less than $500, including a small starting stock of paper and toner—and perhaps more like $300.
The cost of materials is some 20% of Wilbur's retail price on average, with the rest of the price being compensation free and clear for his labor: “the service of printing, folding, stapling and shipping....” There are no proprietary rents because the pdf files are themselves free for download; Wilbur makes money entirely from the convenience-value of his doing those printing, etc., services for the reader.
Everywhere we turn, we see the same model emerging. In the culture and information industries, desktop production and filesharing have eaten the old proprietary content companies alive; Wilbur's desktop publishing microenterprise is a case in point. Among hardware hackers, it's becoming an almost daily occurrence to see yet another account of an open-source computer numeric controlled XYZ cutting table, multimachine, or RepRap 3-D printer, and the like, with a few hundred more dollars shaved off the already rock-bottom cost of production. The informal and household economy today is achieving the same scale of cost reductions that flexible manufacturing did in Emilia-Romagna a generation ago, but taking it several orders of magnitude further. It's becoming possible to enter the manufacturing world with a Fab Lab requiring capital outlays of a few thousand dollars at most, and with virtually zero overhead cost.
The informal economy, in short, is the rats in the nests of the corporate dinosaurs. The corporate economy will be eaten alive. Good riddance.