Sunday, March 02, 2008

The new artisan economy

I've used QuickBooks to run the last several businesses and I'm using it for my current startup as well.

This is excellent accounting software from Intuit. We like it; our CPA likes it; it's easy to learn, bingo.

I don't normally expect big insights from big companies, but I have to say I've been reading and re-reading a new report sponsored by Intuit, produced by the Institute for the Future.

The good folks at Intuit have seen your future as an entrepreneur and, as anyone who has followed these posts know, I couldn't agree with them more.

I have been trumpeting the ascendance of the independent entrepreneur for all of my working life. I work in those trenches. Intuit has just released (Feb. 2008) a great report with a really nice description for the new world of entrepreneurship called, "The New Artisan Economy".

This is the third in a series from Intuit called, The Future of Small Business Series.

Beautiful, smart, direct stuff. This is a publicly available download so I'll attach a link to Intuit's download page for these reports.

If I copied everything I liked about their Phase 3 report into this post it would be too long. So, here are just a few nuggets…

"The next ten years will see a re-emergence of artisans as an economic force."

Yes, many of us have been in this movement for a long while, but there is a palpable tipping point being reached right now. This idea is going mainstream at the speed of light. It's in the air and the water, and it's emerging into the world economies like a welcome spring day.

"The coming decade will see continuing economic transformation and the emergence of the new artisan economy. Many of the new artisans will be small and personal businesses - merchant-craftspeople producing one of a kind or limited runs of specialty goods for an increasingly large pool of customers looking for unique, customized, or niche products. These businesses will attract and retain craftspeople, artists, and engineers looking for the opportunity to build and create new products and markets."

A short comment on the quote above: This is exactly what we were able to build at our first start up, Banner Graphics, right through our last startup, SmartSkim™. You develop systems to produce unique services and products under the aegis of mass customization. You're world-beating within a niche subject area and then you find a way to scale your output and your productivity effectively. The time for this is not coming. It's here.

"They'll be equipped with advanced technology, able to access global and local business partners and customers, and will be competing in any industry. Their firms will be agile, flexible, and will often partner with larger firms to accomplish their business goals. Most will be knowledge artisans, relying on human capital to solve complex problems and develop new ideas, products services, and business models."

In my startups, I always follow this path. The critical piece I don't want you to miss is the last thought about developing new business models. The access to tools and innovative business partnering is virtually limitless within the scale of small businesses right now. Business models - how you organize and go to market - are limited only by your imagination and adherence to applicable laws.

"The new artisan economy will see rapid growth in the formation of small and personal (one person) businesses. The artisans will create new organizational structures and provide greater opportunities for work-life balance. These small and personal businesses will be run by a diverse group of entrepreneurs with a wide range of business objectives, but many will choose to join the ranks of the new artisans to match their work with their values."

… matching work with their values. Sustainable work at its core.

"Small business has generated the majority of net new jobs in the United States over the last several decades, and the number of personal businesses has been growing much faster than the overall economy. This trend will continue over the next decade. We expect that the small and personal business growth will again outpace the growth of the overall economy, and the number of personal businesses will grow from 21 million today to more than 32 million by 2018."

This predicts 10 million new jobs over the next decade, just within the subcategory of 'personal (one person) businesses'. Those growing into the small business category will rise proportionately.

The report describes our economy evolving into a pattern of development across most industries that they call, "barbell economics". This is a term from McKinsey & Co. describing industries, "…with a few global giants at one end, a relatively small number of mid-sized firms in the middle, and a large number of small businesses at the other end."

It is inevitable that the exponential growth in small business formation will create this barbell structure. The economics are obvious. Getting yourself ready to participate in this movement seems obvious. The Kauffman Foundation refers to this movement into entrepreneurship as, 'developing your personal economic independence'.

"Lightweight infrastructures will expand and redefine the boundaries of the small business. They will provide greater agility and flexibility in collaborating, pooling resources, and outsourcing functions to other firms. These changes will reduce the risk of starting and operating a small business by lowering capital requirements and shifting fixed costs into variable costs. Lightweight infrastructures will also open new markets and create new opportunities for small and personal businesses."

Lightweight infrastructures. It's lovely to hear these terms coming into vogue. Lightweight infrastructures are an essential tenant of sustainable enterprise. Moving hard costs to variable costs so that the enterprise can rise and fall and breathe like the (economically) living entity it is. Yep. Dead on.

"The small and personal businesses of the future will build upon information technology to extend their capabilities. Decreasing IT costs, coupled with increasing computer power and the growing popularity of "software as a service" delivery, will provide small businesses access to rich and complex business applications. These new applications will require less time, money and technical skills than traditional business applications, and offer flexibility and ease of use of desktop software. They also provide small businesses with tools and capabilities once exclusively available to large corporations."

What makes me most enthusiastic about all this is that all this guidance is not coming from the usual feel-good suspects. This is coming from hard headed accounting folks. Intuit, no less.

I type this standing under a photo of Buckminster Fuller, who long ago predicted the ever increasing utility of the knowledge economy, resulting in ever increasing possibilities and pathways for all of us to make the world a better place. For me, this report documents that progress.

Intuit really got it right with this report. This is the time, and this is the place for the re-emergence of the artisan entrepreneur.

The idea ties perfectly into the slow startup movement I've been touting. Smart, creative enterprises launched in support of the greater good and designed to support the entrepreneur and their communities. And oh by the way, it ties into the clear realities of the emerging global economy.

This is a time of major transition in economies worldwide, and small business entrepreneurs all over the world are emerging to lead the way to a better life for everyone.

Artisan entrepreneur. A great job title, just waiting for you.

Intuit's PDF links to this study I've been quoting from the Phase 3 report in this post, but they are all great.

Institute for the Future Report authors

The Kauffman Foundation


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