The artisan way of building a company

In business, when do you break with established practices, and go with your own?

Not knowing what results to expect is crucial for taking the risk, naivety quite important. But, If you happen to survive the initial journey, and start to get some independence as a small shop, the path to being bigger probably won’t —or should not— be the commonly accepted one.

More than “the what” to do next, or even “the who” should I bring along, I guess the key question is why? That, when answered, puts you on a unique journey for a company.

The answer could appear to be money, power, or just because my business specialist advisor thinks that my little business has legs, and could be bigger. But, that doesn’t really answer why. Purpose is closer to an answer.

For most small businesses the reason to start was to provide something better (product, service) to friends and family. Something very personal, that they really care how it was delivered, and that met almost artisan like standards. Many start as a hobby, and once friends start paying for what they do, and then friends of friends, they are almost forced to turn it in into a business. Here the question arises: how much real control they have of the way the business will grow if not businesspeople? Many of them are just intensely curious individuals that just care about advancing things or improving a service in a way never done before. Business practices are just the last of the things they want to concentrate if they are to dedicate to their “business” for most of their time. Many even decide not to grow bigger because the prospect of having to manage a business, with all that traditionally it means, is just not something they want to do as their main occupation; to them it remains a hobby that they control and give their full attention, the business side of it always can wait. Finally, there are the very few that consciously decide, if they are to be in business, an artisan ethos and product improvement focus needs to remain intact at all times when growing their companies.

In People that really improve things, the answer to the why question goes beyond a number, a date, and a position. The possible impact they could exert goes beyond them, and solely understands it as: producing the best they can and never compromise on it. That is the purpose, the why, they are in business.

This journey of the artisan pondering to be businessman is very different from what you would learn in business school. Purpose, meaning, why? Not the typical questions to be asked. Money talks and that is the recommended guiding star. The rest is philosophical dilemmas for you to ponder on any free time, but not the talk of business. These schools churn out MBA’s every year with a narrow ethos of finding the next business fad to cling up to and claim they can transform a company with it. When given the means of resources, money, people, time, attention, they can produce the most magnificent plans, but never true innovation, as most don’t understand that you cannot decree naivety, ingenuity and wonder. A set of values, that lies outside corporate boardrooms.

For the artisan-founder this is difficult to grasp when never exposed to “business” practices before. Many initially believe these guys know more than them about business, and some fall for the trap of bringing them in to build together the next stage of their little companies. What ensues is unexpected to them; results are poor as a consequence of losing the care for the product and the ethos of the artisan with “a lot to compromise”; things start to shape in ways that make the artisan-founder uncomfortable; and some lose their companies in power struggles— some see them failing following a vision that was no longer their own. The humble founders surviving this stage, and getting back the control of their companies, develop a deep sense of how much they have to do things different, not only at the product level, but also in how the company operates in every level.

Indeed, this is a bigger problem that just deciding to make business a full-time dedication. Knowing that no longer you can trust specialists to delegate aspects you thought boring or irrelevant, and that to preserve the kind of company you want, most likely you will have to reinvent things —as you did with the product— is a big realisation. Bringing new people in, how they interact and work, and finally how to keep the artisan ethos when many people are involved, is a key part of keeping a company true to its purpose.

One of the best-kept secrets of business is that you don’t need to know or study it to succeed. Actually, the more you study and think you know; the less you focus on what is important for a company to remain true to its identity and purpose. Care in providing the best product or service — a true guiding star when navigating from artisan shop to bigger Co.

Yvon Chouinard, founder and CEO of Patagonia Inc., described his journey to the same realisation this way: “We learned that the most important thing for us was to keep the passion for our products, and that it was easier to bring passionate hiking, climbing and surfing people, to teach them our way of doing business, than getting business trained people to develop our love for these products”.

This journey of founders going the extra mile in reinventing their companies to suit what they believe in, and caring to bring people who share their vision, is what made a few companies different, and some of them the best places to work you can find.

An artisan-founder with a deep care for their products and the people who share their passion in using them needs to oversee everything in the experience. From idea to final product — and the company creating them in between— all need to be seen as part of the same slab of marble to be sculpted and liberated as a masterpiece. Similar to the great architects designing from the overall shape of a building to the last tile in the smallest room, a true innovator cares deeply in how the process will work in between. All of the details, the people involved, the culture of a team with love for the product that will translate in a standard of quality and innovation beyond imitation.

Then breaking with established business practices doesn’t seem too strange anymore. Actually you would not expect something different from a process that is the same everywhere. A company full of artisans is very hard to build and find, which is probably why they are always at the top of their fields everywhere. Not losing the idea of why you are in business has a big reward if you are able to endure the way.

Send to Kindle

Leave a Reply