After twelve years of nursing my wounds (some might say sulking!) following my breakup with the dotcom startup I co-founded; I’m doing it again. But different.
This time: no angels.
Back in 1998, we got started by renting some office space using my Amex card and pooling whatever kit we already had between us. We spent long days & nights writing code (I didn’t do that), business plans (I did a LOT of that!) and emails to potential angel investors. It never even occurred to us that we might be able to make it to market without taking other peoples’ money. We all had friends and ex-colleagues who’d found angel investors, spent 6 months to a year building their product and then cashed out for tens of millions of dollars.
We wanted that.
So, the four of us went out and found some angel investors willing to talk to us. It wasn’t too hard back then, especially with a working prototype of the product already built and online. In the late 90s, startups were getting million dollar seed funding with nothing more than a slick business plan peppered with the right buzzwords. We bought the cheapest flights to Nice airport from the then newly launched lastminute.com, collected the tickets from their offices in west London, played some of their staff at foosball while we waited and then three of us headed to Monaco (I don’t think we had enough cash for all four of us to go - sorry Eric!) to meet some seriously wealthy guys.
When we arrived at the hotel the potential angels had booked for us we were a little shocked. They’d booked us a room each at the equivalent of £400 per night and we were picking up the tab! A long conversation with the receptionist followed (it was really helpful having a co-founder who spoke English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin and very probably had a working knowledge of ancient Sumerian too!) and the three of us headed up to our one room. We quickly dismantled the bed and flipped a coin to decide which of us would get the mattress, bed base or floor. I can tell you that sleeping on a bed base is exactly as comfortable as it sounds. You’d have to ask Mark about the floor.
We lay there in the dark, chatting late into the night and then the early hours of the morning. We were nervous about the meeting and excited at the prospect of having the money to work on the business full-time. I remember thinking that it seemed somehow appropriate to be struggling for cash, buying the cheapest flights and sleeping three to a room on a disassembled bed because, well, we’d need stories like that for our interviews with Wired right?
To be continued…
Democracy is something we take for granted in the UK. We’re the poster child for modern democratic government right?
Democracy was conceived as a way to make decisions based on the wishes and opinions of a group. In its earliest form, it was literally a show of hands to vote for each issue in question. Each participant had an equal say in any decision: that is direct democracy.
Fast forward a little and it became increasingly difficult to gather the individual votes on every issue from every citizen across a growing population. The answer was to have elected officials in each town and village gather the votes locally and then dispatch the results to a central point to be totalled up. The elected officials had no political affiliation and were chosen for their impartiality. Their role was purely to collect votes. Each participant still had an equal say in each decision: that is indirect democracy.
Fast forward to today.
When was the last time you were asked to vote on a specific issue? Probably never. We are now asked to vote to elect local politicians to represent us and our views in parliament: this is (or should be) representative democracy.
The concept of each citizen having an equal say on each issue is now lost. Theoretically, the elected official for our local area is mandated with representing us and voting on our behalf. Unfortunately, party affiliations and the existence of the political ‘whip’ (MPs being instructed to vote a particular way by their party leaders) mean that our elected representatives effectively have their vote decided for them on the majority of important issues.
There’s the problem.
We’ve come all the way from direct participation in the process to a point where elected officials in no way represent the people that voted for them.
That is NOT democracy.
This isn’t directly related to being a maker of stuff; it’s more about how schools feel the need to slot every child into a tidy pigeonhole, complete with labels like ‘future doctor’, ‘future plumber’ and ‘future hairdresser’.
I got a call from my son’s school recently and it was a complaint from his ‘Head of Pastoral Care’ telling me that ‘Josh refused to participate in a lesson today.’
That surprised me as the one thing most of his teachers have always mentioned is that he’s a ‘very active participant’ in all of his classes. I pressed her for more detail:
‘It was a careers session and he refused to select a preferred career from the list provided.’
‘So he chose nothing?’
‘Well, he chose something that wasn’t on the list generated by our computer software.’
‘Right. So he didn’t refuse to participate, he just didn’t choose from the list?’
‘Exactly. He actually said he wanted to own his own company!’
‘And you don’t think he could do that?’
‘Erm…well..erm..it’s not on our list!’
‘So, he’s in trouble because your list doesn’t cater for intelligent 16 year olds who aspire to become business leaders?’ ‘Isn’t that a deficiency in the software you’re using?’
‘Erm…I…well…he’ll have to do an after school detention for refusing to participate.’
‘That won’t be happening. As far as I can tell, he’s in trouble for not wanting to be a dentist, electrician, hairdresser or accountant and I absolutely will not allow him to be punished for having drive and ambition and refusing to compromise his position.’
‘Oh. I was rather expecting you to support us in this.’
‘I can’t support any policy that seems to want to crush the entrepreneurial life out of a 16 year old boy.” ‘Just as a matter of interest, is Head of Pastoral Care on the list he was asked to choose from?’
‘Oh no, jobs like mine didn’t exist when the list was created.’
‘Hmmmm…and you want to punish Josh for choosing a career that isn’t on the list either?’
‘Ah. I see what you mean. I’m sorry to have bothered you with this Dr Nicholls. I’ll see if we can get the list updated to include more up-to-date options.’
I should clarify the somewhat inflammatory headline: Buyers from large retailers are screwing artists and makers. Including me:
I’ve been screwed. By a ‘professional’ buyer from a large, well respected, up-market retailer that is considered the benchmark of fine service by much of the English middle class.
John Lewis screwed me.
I’m angry with them for the way I’ve been treated but even more angry with myself for allowing it to happen. Oh, I guess I should explain…
I had an Etsy store where I sold items I designed and made from English Brown Oak. It’s rare stuff. Oak comes in white and red, not brown. Here comes the science bit:
You only get Brown Oak when the Fistulina Heptica or ‘Beefsteak’ fungus makes a home for itself, high on the trunk of an oak tree and survives for a number of years, slowly feeding on the sap and passing its own waste products back into the tree. These waste products react with the tannins in the sap and turn the wood a beautiful marbled brown colour.
Anyway, I was making some pretty cool items from this wood, including some charcuterie boards with bowls carved into them, suitable for serving olives, meats and cheeses to guests. Hey, I guess I could add a photo here - hang on:
There you go - pretty nice right?
I sold quite a few to Etsy customers across the world and all was going well. Then I got an enquiry from John Lewis, asking if I would consider making a particular board for them?
I was flattered. Really flattered.
After trading a few messages, a meeting was arranged and I met with a buyer. A deal was agreed and I was told to expect a purchase order in a few days, with delivery of the boards scheduled for 6 weeks later.
The order never came. Emails and phone calls are not being returned. Nobody wants to speak to me.
Part of the agreement with John Lewis was that they would have exclusive rights to sell the boards and that I would remove them from my Etsy store. I did. I wish I hadn’t but I stick to an agreement when I make it (even a verbal one). So, 2 months later, I have no order from John Lewis, no explanations, no returned emails, no returned phone calls and a stockpile of Brown Oak (it has to be tracked down and ordered well in advance)
I don’t feel screwed because the John Lewis deal didn’t happen; I feel screwed because the total lack of communication means that I lost momentum and lost out on an unknown number of sales because the boards weren’t available via Etsy.
I feel pretty stupid right about now :-(
The people of Great Britain were referred to by Adam Smith in 1776 and by Napoleon a few years later as “a nation of shopkeepers”. This was supposed to be a slur on the British people, by Smith as a comment on the expansion and exploitation of the British Empire (probably fair comment!) and by Bonaparte as a rallying cry to his own troops not to fear the British soldiers as they were not worthy opponents (big mistake, shorty!)
I absolutely believe that the people of this country (actually, many countries) could achieve prosperity and independence from the control of big business if we became a ‘nation of shopkeepers’ again. Not shopkeepers that go to the cash & carry and buy cheaply made crap from the far east to sell, but the kind of shopkeeper that has a skill, puts it to use in making something full of passion and lets the world see it, love it and buy it.
If we go back a few hundred years, every small village was filled with people that made whatever they needed in their daily lives. Bread, furniture, clothes, pots, pans, pokers, blankets, beer; everything. Over time, some people became very skilled in particular areas: maybe one person in the village enjoyed and had a talent for baking bread while another had a natural affinity for working metal. Villagers would trade their own skills for the skills of others and as their individual talents became more widely known, the first small businesses and shops appeared. Later on, the bartering gave way to cash transactions but the fundamentals of making something and offering it to others remained intact.
Fast forward to now and we’re so far away from the days when a ‘maker’ sold their own products directly to the end customer. Big business and investment banking has hijacked the whole of retail and those people with skills in arts, crafts and making their own things are considered by most as ‘just hobbyists’. I believe it can be different and that we could escape the control and influence of big business and banking by going back to the most basic of businesses.
The rise of Etsy, Not On The High Street and the other direct trade outlets for makers is I believe, just the start of something much bigger. There has never been a better time for someone to take whatever talent or skill they have and offer their products to the world. The route-to-market is wide open now and the cost of doing business online is very low. I do believe that we could revitalise the High Streets by opening up empty shops to makers but that’s a whole other rant for another day!
I don’t differentiate between the old, traditional skills and crafts and the high-tech, low-volume manufacturing techniques that are just getting into the hands of the individual: if it’s about a person designing and making their own stuff and making it available to the world themselves then I reckon that can only be a good thing. My startup business includes a good mix of the old and new: traditional pen and ink design, signwriting typography, graphic design, 3D computer rendering, CNC machining, robotics, numerous paint techniques, traditional wood finishing and a big dollop of Internet/web savvy!
I’ve been designing on screen for such a long time and the only output I’ve previously been able to create from it is a print. To be able to create a physical object from my designs is as close to magic as I’ll probably ever get! There’s something quite amazing about being able to hold the physical manifestation of something that started out as a pen and ink drawing or a design on a computer screen.
I struggled for a while with the concept of something ‘manufactured’ by a machine being called art or craftsmanship but when I re-read my books about the Bauhaus school in Germany, they were full of Walter Gropius’ own words, demanding that his students embrace the latest technologies, tools and equipment available to them. Gropius stated that it was their duty as craftsmen and artists to adopt every possible way in which to create beauty and utility. Works for me. (although, not for the Nazis - they closed the school down on the basis that using modern technology to create art was un-German!)
Imagine all the people in this country who have amazing skills and talents, the old cabinetmaker who learned his trade the hard way, the Grandma who had to learn to sew to clothe her family, the teenager who just discovered that she has an eye for making jewellery or the 42year old behavioural economist who recently found a way to make his typography into physical objects! Imagine those people multiplied numerous times and across every possible art and craft, making their stuff and selling it directly to whoever wants it. No big business involvement, no banks, no finance or credit needed - just the simplest of all transactions:
You make something. I like/want/need it. I buy it from you.
A nation of shopkeepers.
Finished! I got the paint effect I was looking for by using emulsion paint, direct from the pot (100ml sample pots from a local DIY store). A couple of coats of pink, followed by some stippling with a cloth and a final rub down with wire wool when it dried got me the weatherbeaten, faded look I was after.
The great news is: she LOVES it!
This carving is still a work in progress but I’ve had some great feedback on it so far and my ego is quite enjoying all the oohs and aahs! It’s 850x300x18mm pine carved on the CNC and then reworked and distressed by hand. There’s still plenty of work to do; the paint is just a guide coat so that I can see which parts I’ve worked on and which are still in need of attention. It’ll end up finished in cream basecoat with dusty pink lettering and flowers. The brief was for a ‘girly, surfy, worn and weatherbeaten look’ and I reckon it’ll be just that.
It’ll be put to good use next weekend, guiding guests to the Thames-side restaurant in the Buckinghamshire countryside where we’ll be celebrating with the birthday girl :-)
This one is a little different. It’s a 3D carving of a book cover and it wasn’t a commissioned piece; it’s a gift to the author of the book.
John Williams wrote the book that started all of this for me and the chain of events that eventually lead to the exciting projects I’m involved with now, began with me buying my copy of Screw Work Let’s Play.
Between John and Selina Barker (Head Coach at Screw Work Let’s Play), they’ve changed the way I look at business, my career (or, more accurately; careers) and life in general. I already had a very successful consulting business in computer security and business risk but there was a niggling feeling somewhere deep inside me that I couldn’t quite identify. Things are very different now. I’ve learned a lot about myself and how to take a different view of what a fulfilling working life can look like. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s an ongoing thing for me, Selina is still coaching me and I’m still learning how to build a ‘portfolio career’ that works for me.
Click on the photo to see what all the fuss is about!
Oh, for anyone interested in the carving:
It’s carved from blue poly foam 565x410x50mm and weighs exactly 365g.
Carve time was close to 2 hours using a 6mm end mill for roughing and a .5” 60 degree vee cutter for carving/finishing. The design was really challenging - taking the 2D book cover design and translating it into a viable 3D version wasn’t easy but the results are something I’m really proud of. This one was more art than design.
The finish is a custom mixed stone effect, HVLP sprayed and it’s actually real ground stone suspended in a water-based carrier.
I have given myself to the dark side!
Actually, I haven’t but I have created the 3D rendering of a sign for a summer Star Wars Academy project, where kids from 7 to 14 will have to make that choice. This design is slightly unusual in that it is an existing logo that I have turned into a 3D rendering and the Lucas people have very strict guidelines on what can and can’t be done with their trademarks. I must have due something right because the design approval came in on Friday and the job will be on the machine later this week and they also gave me permission to post this! Again, this job needs to be lightweight but strong enough to survive probing fingers so I’ll be using a heavy styrene foam with great compression resistance. This stuff is surprisingly abrasive and can blunt a standard router cutter before the job finishes. With that in mind, I’ll be using solid carbide milling cutters to ensure that the finish is as perfect as I can make it.
Estimated cutting time for each 600mm diameter piece is approximately 1hr 45mins and the client wants 6 of them so I may spread the cutting over a couple of days. I’ll post more pics of the job as it progresses later this week.
This sign was a rush job and is going to appear in a new movie about the life of Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys). Traynor was (and still is) a guitar amp company. The sign started life as a slab of very lightweight blue polyurethane foam and the stone finish is something I’ve been working on for a while. The brief was to make the sign as light as possible while making it look as solid and realistic. The design work took me a few hours and the cut time was about 1hr 30mins using a 6mm end mill for roughing and a 60 degree vee bit for the finishing.
I’m really pleased with the result and pretty excited about seeing the piece in the movie!