Words Handcrafted By Andrew Dietz
Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly. In a hidden valley in the Himalayas, or in Kansas maybe, felt-covered, hand-stitched unicorns prance across candy corn meadows and milk chocolate lakes. Somewhere, too, there may be a rare piece of space where craftsmanship, innovation and scalability intersect. Bring me there, please.
Craftsmanship is precious: pour ten thousand hours into mastering a unique aesthetic skill so you can passionately shape sensory delicacies for a lucky few to savor. Don’t you value the look, feel, taste, performance of a carefully hand crafted service, product or experience? Innovative craftsmanship is better still. That means the hand-styled creation of a brand new way of solving a problem, accomplishing a task or doing work that is as aesthetically pleasing as it is highly functional. But, you can’t build scalable innovation on artistry and craftsmanship. Can you?
Scalability means growing big, fast, without excessive (or, at least, with predictably proportional or flattening) effort and expense. Minting tons of money with lightening speed while you sleep: That sounds precious, too. But, can craftsmanship and quality survive the fast growth journey?
What if scalability is overrated? Tom Peters is a world famous, New York Times Best-selling business provocateur and he writes about business excellence and innovation. Peters doesn’t think scalability is overrated. He thinks it sucks.
Value or Wowlue?
Jim Jacoby thinks craftsmanship and scalability aren’t polar opposites but choices to be made across a spectrum of possibilities. Jacoby is a practical philosopher and a digital poet of sorts – having founded the marketing agency, Manifest Digital, in 2001 on the principles of great user-centered web design. Seven years later, Jacoby and his partners had grown Manifest into the ranks of Inc. Magazine’s fastest growing companies. Manifest revenues grew by 100% in 2008. In January 2009, a major private equity firm committed $9 million in investment capital to help Manifest realize its bigger potential and to ultimately maximize the company’s value.
Definitions of value can differ greatly between innovators and investors. Private equity funders tend to value scalable growth and value portfolio companies run by ravenous carnivores rather than philosophers and poets. That combination leads to maximum economic value. For idea creators, the “value” equation may include variables like aesthetics, societal impact, "Wow-ness," "Amazingness," or "OMG-ness." Big Idea guys aren’t always the best fit with ROI-driven financiers. Such may have been the case with Jacoby and the backers of Manifest Digital. Or, it could be that Jacoby – as happens with many entrepreneurs after they hit a decade with their company – became bored of the same-old grind. Whatever the case, a few years after bringing in private equity funding, Jacoby’s attention had shifted away from the firm he founded and towards a burgeoning obsession: world-class craftsmanship.
In 2012, Jacoby joined forces with former home products manufacturing entrepreneur, Scott Miller, and launched a mission-driven for-profit organization called American Design and Master-Craft Initiative (ADMCi) to champion master-craftsmanship by studying the work of virtuoso makers and applying it to other markets like software and services. ADMCi made good on that promise by enlisting experts in online user experience, interface design and digital content to deliver boot camps and classes on “digital craftsmanship” to creatives and coders in downtown Chicago and online.
At the same time, ADMCi invested in the maestro motorcycle designer J.T. Nesbitt and his vision to build the ultimate motorcycle that would not only stand on its own as a sculptural gem but also be engineered to break land speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Jacoby challenged Nesbitt: “What would you design if you could design anything?” And, Jacoby gave the motorcycle maestro an ample budget and free creative rein: a no-constraints design platform.
The result: Bienville Legacy Motorcycles which has initially produced three hand-built, supercharged badass muscle bikes adorned with custom carbon fiber, natural wood, top-grade leather and gleaming chrome. As one online motorcycle enthusiast said, “Love it or hate it (I love it) you cannot deny the craftsmanship or the wow factor.” Those bikes are Wow! Amazing! OMG!
Four years since launching these craftsmanship initiatives, Jacoby and his partners have traveled the globe to show off their bespoke motorcycles valued at $350,000 apiece. They’ve garnered multiple patents for elements of the Bienville Legacy design that are being marketed to the auto industry by Pratt & Miller Engineering. They’re bringing their lessons-learned to corporate America and consolidating those lessons into book form.
At the center of ADMCi’s findings about master craftsmanship is the idea that scalability, engineering and optimization aren’t necessarily at odds with intuition, design and innovation. Instead, these variables can be mapped – and, therefore, balanced - on the continuums of art and science, heart and mind.
Here’s how Jacoby describes it:
Can craftsmanship and scalability exist? Yes. The challenge comes when you're not clear on whether you are building for craft or building for scale. Pure art is created for the purpose of the artist first. Pure engineering, at the other end of the spectrum, is created to meet a technical specification of some kind. The center of that art and engineering spectrum represents the balance of craftsmanship: it’s the point that meets an exacting purpose and incorporates a visceral sense of its creator. Craftsmanship is an ethos and an outcome that defines excellence at a specific point on the continuum of art and science. It’s ultimately the sum of seemingly insignificant moments of courage and choice.
Consider a scenario where a craftsman makes a masterpiece in a chair or table. The piece itself is valued for function, beauty, as well as for the fact that it was handmade: reflecting the value of the time it took to produce and the experience accumulated and applied by the craftsman. That object, whatever it may be, can serve as a prototype or form for something that might separately be scaled. That's an entirely different activity, but still an important skill which we might call design for manufacturing. The requirements for manufacture are separate from those the craftsman kept in balance when designing the prototype, because they serve a different 'master.' Design for manufacturing needs to be efficient, cost-effective, and fill a need in the market. Those drivers may cause a master-crafted piece to be compromised in some way in order to be worth reproducing. The more compromises for efficiency, cost, etc. are made, the further away from the craftsman's ideal the piece might evolve. That's okay, because the design goal is entirely different.
The creation of the three Bienville Legacy bikes reveals efficiencies available for production. In the case of our prototype Legacy bikes, there are fewer parts than are normally included in a motorcycle with this level of complexity and performance. It is infinitely more adjustable than any other bike produced. These learnings can be adopted for the benefits of efficient manufacturing, but were not originally intended to serve that master. We liken it to a moonshot. Under any normal circumstance, going to the moon is unreasonable and doesn't scale yet. But, the byproducts - ballpoint pens, Velcro and Tang - are all great, scalable products that were unintended offshoots of necessary components of the design to get to the moon.
Ideally, we would have a culture of master-craftsmanship that serves as the breeding ground for great new designs that could be mass-produced. What would it look like to take the Bienville Legacy patents and use them to make a $1000 moped that could be spread across India? That is the ideal.
Instead, we have an environment where mass-production puts craftsmen out of business. They can't compete. In better circumstances, the mass manufacturers and the craftsmen would help one another. Wouldn't it be interesting if manufacturing companies took a fraction of their earnings to support craft communities that might, in turn, contribute their intellectual capital to support the innovation and advancement of the larger organization?
The Bienville Legacy represents extraordinary craftsmanship and its development was an innovative act. Still, it is a far cry from scalable craftsmanship. Rather than trying to scale one finely crafted product, what if you built a business that, at scale, offered a vast inventory and variety of crafted goods? That’s what Etsy did.
Is This Craftsmanship?
The online craft retailer Etsy – founded in 2005 – was launched as an e-commerce platform for promoting indie craft makers empowering them to turn their hobbies into enterprises. You can’t buy a handcrafted, Bienville Legacy motorcycle on the e-commerce craft products site, Etsy. But you can buy small-batch, classic motorcycle goggles. You can also buy nose rings, lip rings, belly rings, toe rings, and nipple rings. You can pick up a pound of hand spun super chunky “smoosh” yarn. You can also add to your collection of miniature sleeping woodland fairies, teeny tiny garden gnomes or needle-felted alpacas. Um…Wow? Amazing? OMG?
Should the word “craftsmanship” apply with equal force to fuzzy, stuffed Camelids and sculpted, titanium-laced motorcycles? Does the term fit both a Stradivarius violin and an Etsy non-piercing labia clip? There are degrees of craftsmanship, perhaps, like there are degrees of absurdity. Or maybe these comparisons reveal the difference between the hobbyist and artisan approaches: crafting versus craftsmanship or craftsmanship versus Master Craftsmanship?
For that matter, there are degrees of “entrepreneurial craftsmanship” when it comes to creating and running a business, too. In the first six years of Etsy’s existence, founder Rob Kalin and his team insisted that sellers on Etsy promote only handmade products. Kalin & Co. valued their entrepreneurial freedom to create with few constraints. But, their constraints on Etsy sellers placed significant limitations on those makers' flexibility. Etsy’s requirement that its merchants sell only handcrafted items meant that sellers would be put in a production pickle if they were successful. To keep up with rising demand, a successful Etsy merchant would have to turn to outside labor or manufacturing and would, therefore, be disqualified from being an Etsy participant. Craft and scale were at odds.
In April 2011, INC. Magazine ran an article headlined, “Can Rob Kalin Scale Etsy?” Kalin was quoted saying, "I speak to people in the business world and the technology world, but I don't admire them. I admire the makers of the world." He dismissed the idea of maximizing shareholder value as a ridiculous excuse that business users too often employ to avoid doing things. Kalin emphasized the importance of “a sense of wonder, a sense of poetry, and a sense of foolishness” as drivers of Etsy’s success. Like Jim Jacoby at Manifest Digital, Kalin launched a non-profit during his time at Etsy, providing a select group of Etsy sellers with free office space and training on how to turn a craft hobby into a business. These are the values of a dyed-in-the-hand-spun-super-chunky-wool craftsman.
In July 2011, INC. Magazine ran an article headlined, “Rob Kalin Out As Etsy CEO.” In 2013, Etsy began accepting sellers promoting manufactured goods. The following four years under a new CEO tipped the scales towards scaling Etsy’s top line revenue. The business generated $2.4 billion in gross merchandise sales by 2015 though it remained unprofitable. In April 2015, CNN Money reported, “Etsy now worth over $3 billion. Stock jumps 88% after IPO.” Wonder, poetry and foolishness be damned!
Meanwhile, Etsy wrapped its arms around another kind of craftsmanship: the craft of making itself. Etsy’s Code as Craft Blog announces: “At Etsy, our mission is to enable people to make a living making things. The engineers who make Etsy make our living making something we love: software. We think of our code as craft — hence the name of the blog. Here we’ll write about our craft and our collective experience building and running Etsy, the world’s most vibrant handmade marketplace.”
This brings us back to Mr. Jacoby as his quest has returned him to his digital roots. Through ADMCi, Jacoby is applying lessons from the Bienville Legacy experience to the realm of digital business. “The ADMCi Studio for Digital Craftsmanship is a hub for all agencies interested in elevating their game through a core focus on the impact their work has on the world. We audit and certify their work, we support the development of craftsmanship-anchored cultures, and we route opportunities based on appropriate fit for each agency in the network,” Jacoby said. “The obligations of digital design are to make a better human experience – offline as well as online. Our craft is our user-centered design process. The roots of craftsmanship are woven throughout our work,” Jacoby added.
Jacoby also remains committed to his American Design and Master-Craft Initiative that is now led by co-founder Scott Miller. ADMCi seems to have shifted the question from “how do we scale innovative craftsmanship” to “why should we?” Jacoby points to the value residing in those three Bienville Legacy motorcycles. The value he sees is in the patents created and the lessons learned. Whether or not master craftsmanship is scalable, the effort can yield valuable inputs for product variations that ultimately move toward mass-production. It is the by-product of what the craftsman creates that will lead to other advances and ventures…more scalable ones.
“The key is to separate the drive for profit from the act of designing,” Jacoby said. “Master craftsman should be free to do pure art.” Jacoby’s ADMCi represents a new kind of patronage system that is more akin to what the Medici family created to support artists like Michelangelo.
Elusive But, Perhaps, Not Impossible
Just because something is elusive does not mean it is impossible. We have seen instances of products and services living at the scalable, innovative craftsmanship intersection. They still live, waiting for creators with chutzpah and manic focus to produce their progeny. Somewhere in a far-off hidden valley, a rider roars by on her Harley-Davidson, past the ghost of Steve Jobs pounding ideas out on his MacBook. Nearby, a unicorn surfs across the sea under a brilliant rainbow.