How big is an Artisan’s market?

Relationships are at the heart of an artisan’s market. It’s their relationship with their work – the work after all is the client. It’s who they serve. Then there are those who buy the work, for whom a relationship with the artisan, or at least the idea of the artisan is central.

People pay premium prices for a pair of Hiut Jeans for many reasons, not least the ongoing dialogue. Every pair of Jeans is signed by the person who made them. There is a constant stream of interesting, useful and creative output on “doing one thing well” that, whilst building relatonships, is also great marketing. The personal relationship is the brand.

There’s an interesting spat at the moment between Brewdog and the Advertising Standards Authority over a recent advertisement celebrating Brewdog becoming carbon negative in, er, fairly robust language. The conflict between establishment and iconoclast is personality based amd memorable. The paradox of course is that far more people have seen the ad because it has been banned. Brewdog win. Nobody has a relationship with the ASA.

There is clearly an upper limit to an artisan’s market size. At some point, they tip over into mass market, and lose their artisan credentials. When does that happen?

Going back to Hiut, with each pair of jeans signed by the maker – that’s a relationship. There’s another through the highly personalised marketing. There’s enough scope to build a really good business, but not a huge business, which means that at least in their own lifetime, artisans need to have a concept of “enough”. It might wel be the case, as for many artists that the demand for and financial value of their work increases after they have left us, but in their lifetimes, they have finite production capability whilst maintaining the relationship with the work.

We face the prospect that an entrepreneur has the opportunity to make billions, but that the artisan in limited to a few million. The limiting factor is relationships and as Robin Dunbar has shown, we cannot maintain meaningful individual relationships much above 150. The brand can extend that a little, but not much whilst maintaining the direct artisinal relationship. Nobody has a personal relationship with Uber, or Facebook, a Bank, or an insurance company no matter how much they spend on advertising.

The good news is that the constraint is a powerful friend, If you have a limited audience, if you have all your eggs in one basket, you have to look after that basket really well. You have to maintain those relationships at every moment. Once relationships erode, they rarely restore.

So for all us aspiring artisans and iconoclasts who are prepared to put up with an upper limit of customers in the thousands rather than millions, and a wealth ceiling in the millions rather than billions from doing work that we love the question is:

What is it that we will commit to that drives us to focus so closely on so few and put our relationships on the line?

Sir Tim Smit, iconic founder of Lost Gardens of Heligan, and the Eden Project, gets it.

Bankers and investors always talk from the outset of the need to establish an exit strategy, a way out when things go wrong. This may be why Britain is not the easiest country in the world in which to turn dreams into reality. In my view, if you really believe in something you should allow yourself only one exit strategy – death. It concentrates the mind most wonderfully. If those around you trust you, they will draw comfort from your conviction. If they don’t, you deserve to fail.

Once we understand that the adventure begins. Everything else is sightseeing..

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