I think scale is a paradox. It reduces costs but carries a price.
A production potter will use around 100lb of clay in a day, or maybe around 50 of the pots in the picture. That can be scaled to a degree in a pottery workshop, maintaining the craft skill amongst others we learn from whilst sharing overheads. Beyond that we make the leap to a factory, where all the relationships change. The equipment sets the drumbeat, not the hands and eye of a craftswoman.
When we buy from a potter, we buy relationships – between the potter and the clay, between us and the finished article, and between us and the potter. It is a complex purchase. When we buy a factory made item, we buy an article, devoid of relationship. A simple, functional transaction. somewhere between the two is something like Moorcroft, whose genius over the years was an ability to orchestrate craft potters, and whose products as a result retain their financial and craft value for generations after factory produced items have been long since discarded.
As we go into next level automation of services using AI and Machine learning as well as global sourcing, for potters read accountants, lawyers, “software as a service” providers, food producers and many others. I’m suggesting that, beyond a certain, fairly small number, there is an inverse square function governing volume and relationship. We scale at the cost of our relationship to those who buy what we do. (Just this morning, I’ve had an email from Atlassian instructing me on what I need to do now they have acquired Trello, a neat lttle app I admired the simplicity of when it started, and used occasionally. I liked it, but not so much to stay with it as it migrates from artisan to factory)
We all have a choice to make if what we do matters to us. When we go down the road of the easy automation, the efficient templates, focusing more on margin than meaning, and returns more than relatonships, we very quickly disappear into a swamp of commodities and mediocrity. It applies whether we work for ourselves, or for an employer.
People buy from artisans partly for what they make, partly for an idea of a relationship with the maker, partly for who they are, and partly for what it says about themselves.
I happened on a post by Praseed Viswambharan this morning, in which he mentioned the idea of protean careers. The definition of protean is “tending or able to change frequently or easily”. I like serendipity, and I think artisans are protean – they pursue a capability, a marriage of art and production that they apply flexibly as they learn, and as they gather round them a cohort of clients who trust them and rely on them, to adapt to make a good living by serving them. They may never be rich, but they will also never be poor, and their souls stand a much better chance of growing with them. For me, making a living doing work that is valued by people we know beats the hell out of making a fortune by selling mass produced items to people we don’t .
I think it’s an interesting reflection. How many customers do we have? What do we mean to them? Why do we value them as customers? What do they value? Would they miss us? Where are they going, and how do we adapt what we do to help them get there?
How do we want to feel?