Knowledge is faster than Mortar

Knowledge is faster than Mortar

I picked up a bag of coffee beans whilst we were on holiday, roasted by Skye Roastery and sold out of the Skye Farm Shop (“Local Produce for Local People”).  The coffee is especially interesting for me personally because I’ve been using coffee as a proxy for how MTPW>MPWT can play in even existing, seemingly saturated markets, but I was fascinated to find both the roastery and the shop on Skye, because it shows again just how quickly (and far) ideas can spread through culture.

Let’s think about two waves of coffee culture in the UK (and other countries too, but I know the UK best), assuming year zero as the time when coffee was either being a poor italian imitation in  restaurants or instant out of a jar in a cafe.

The first wave is the chains, which revolutionised the experience around buying coffee (Starbucks, Nero, Costa et al), though arguably their coffee isn’t that much better than what you could expect at the end of your meal in a decent restaurant.  But it wasn’t so much about the coffee as the thing that connected people, but the places they drank it in.  The second wave is the Artisan Coffee movement, where the quality, provenance, style, technique and other factors about the coffee itself very much is the thing the connects people.

The first wave has not reached Skye.  There are, as far as I can see, no coffee chain shops on Skye (the nearest Starbucks, for instance, is 113 miles away).  But, interestingly, the second wave has taken hold, and is evident in a lot of the places you can buy coffee, before the first has.

Interestingly, in a place where the second wave hits first, like Australia, it’s hard for first-wave style businesses to make inroads – “95 percent of the 6,500 cafes and coffee shops in Australia today are independently owned” according to the Slate article, despite Starbucks first having tried to extend into Australia in 2000.

It’s kind of simple when you think about the differences between the two.  The first wave needs things like:

- physical bricks & mortar stores
- a consolidated, consistent approach (or ‘brand’ if you will)
- centrally owned entities
- a minimum level of market size and opportunity in a certain location order to bother setting up there

The second wave, as evidenced by the Skye Roastery packaging, instead needs:

- the idea that there is one place things are done (the ‘roastery’ itself)
- the right cues that lots of other similar roasteries use as a brand (“Artisan”, Provenance notes, Black & White hand stamped labels)
- a loose affiliation of ‘people like us’ (the other shops who sell and serve the coffee)
- a much smaller, yet simultaneously less geographically specific market opportunity

The second wave coffee shops share an unoffical, decentralised brand.  Swedish wood counters, slate & chalk pricing boards, bearded folksy looking baristas.  It isn’t an official thing, there isn’t a formal checklist, it’s just people looking, thinking ‘I could do that’, and copying in their own way.  As a crude shorthand, knowledge is faster than mortar.

And not just the physical mortar of having to build and fit out locations.  The slow, leaden process of sticking organisations, brands and markets together in one place means that the first wave is always going to take longer to put together than the second wave. But they become bigger entities as a result, surely?

Whilst the first wave chains are invariably worth more money (and I’d guess a lot more), it’s very hard to judge how much the second wave is worth because, well, they’re all independent of each other.  Every time I find a long list of ‘independent coffee shops’ like this one, invariably it’s more notable for the omissions.

It’s invariably really hard to keep track of all of the independent coffee shops and roasteries (not forgetting the mail order coffee start-ups like Pact or Eight Point Nine).  In his chapter in Brand New Brand Thinking (2002) John Cronk talked about how Marketing was like yacht racing – there’s a start line, a finish line, but in-between you’d invariably postion yourselves by what the other yachts were doing, accoerding to who was finding a good line.  Yet by and large the instruments available to us are set up to look at other ‘yachts’.  How do you set yourself up to look at all the canoes, speedboats, jet-skis and other small nimble craft at the same time?

It’s largely impossible to set a value on what this market is worth, because of the speed with which they will set-up (and sometimes disappear again).  In some ways, the independents are to coffee what Anonymous is to politics.


(from Australian coffee shop ‘Anonymous‘)



They’re not one entity, there is no consistency, there is camaraderie and occasional fractious rifts between members (if indeed, membership is a thing that can be defined).  There are a loose set of cues that anyone can pick up and run with, yet it’s hard to fake – the community is pretty good on vetting anyone who doesn’t ‘fit’ – Tesco’s 49% ownership of Harris + Hoole, for instance, was jumped upon rather quickly, which will likely force it into competing with the first wave chains as a proposition, rather than a halfway house between the two.

What’s also interesting is how neither fits with the old model which they rail against.  You can’t vote for Anonymous, or form a coalition with them, or even sit down with the leadership and talk about doing things together.  Because they’re not built like that.  The old mechanisms don’t fit the new social structure.

Equally, if one of the established first wave chains decided that the second wave was worth investing in… where would they start?  Despite the success of the emergent second wave, there’s not an entity there to acquire, as such.  And even if Starbucks did buy one or two of the independents… what would they do with them?

As always, coffee is my chosen sector to use as a proxy for what might be at play in other sectors.  Something that caught my eye whilst thinking about this was the latest focus is on the falling sales for the big four supermarkets, and the implied answer from centralised measurement tools is that it’s being stolen away by the other challenger ‘yachts’.

Nowadays, we have to keep in mind that the money in peoples’ pockets isn’t just going to one of the other competitors on the research list.

Just because you can’t see it, or measure it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there, growing, and significant.




Posted by on Apr 9, 2014 in Making, random inspiration | One Comment

It’s time to finish the essay I’m writing for the next Creative Social Book, which I’m thrilled to be a part of.  It’s a two-and-a-half-year perspective on the phrase that has come to define Smithery’s purpose: Make Things People Want > Make People Want Things.  I’m trying to make it a useful elongated version of the idea behind the phrase, pulling out each of those four words, identifying what they should mean in order to step beyond exploiting existing demand, and creating new demand.

You’ll have to wait until the book’s out to read it, of course, but it’s sparking all sorts of others ideas which will end up here in the usual tentative, exploratory form.  Right, I’m clearly blogging instead of writing.  Back to it.  This view will help with the inspiration, no doubt.

Buildings That Cry

Buildings That Cry

Posted by on Apr 1, 2014 in random inspiration | No Comments

There’s a curious thing that happens with buildings around the area I’m from in Scotland.  The colder, damper weather demands that when you build houses, you don’t leave as much raw brickwork exposed to the elements as you might in the South.

As a result, a lot of the houses have roughcast on the outside.  But after a while, the damp still seeps in, and begins to stain underneath the top floor window sills.  As a result, in a certain light, the buildings look like they’re crying.  Rows upon rows of bawling homes.

Sometimes what seems like a sensible short term solution has unfortunately long term consequences.

buildings that cry 2


How To Knock Off A Saddleback Leather Bag

How To Knock Off A Saddleback Leather Bag

Posted by on Mar 27, 2014 in internet, Making, material culture | No Comments

Genius (via Mr Sparke) – from Dave at Saddleback Leather, who’s concerned that folk are knocking off his bags.  So he’s made a twelve minute instructional video on how they should do it well

This is slap bang in th emiddle of the fragmentation principle I talk about in the Fracking The Social Web stuff, of course; make everything you do with the infinte canvas of the internet in mind.


Fracking an Early Thursday Morning

Fracking an Early Thursday Morning

Posted by on Mar 17, 2014 in brand | 2 Comments

The lovely folks at Stack have invited me to speak at a regular Working Breakfast session they put on, on the Fracking The Social Web strand of thought I’ve been developing over the last year or so.

If you fancy it, it’s on Thursday morning (20th March), and it’s an 8:00am coffee for an 8:30 kick-off at One Alfred Place, just off Tottenham Court Road, and you can sign up here on Eventbrite.

The Good Master

The Good Master

Posted by on Mar 16, 2014 in Making, thinking, work | 4 Comments

I’ve had a wee thing sitting in my head for a while; it’s a section from Sennett’s The Craftsman (a book I’ve drawn endless inspiration from since starting Smithery), about the way medieval Goldsmiths worked when it came to staffing.

I’ve never really known what to do about writing it up, until I read this piece from John Winsor on how agencies are becoming a closed, shrinking creative system.

In the piece, Winsor points out why the generation running agencies are puzzled about the lack of desire amongst coming generations of creatively-minded youngsters to get into (or stay in) the agencies they’ve inherited to run:

“…it’s hard for many of the long timers in the Agency Industrial Complex (AIC) to understand. The long held and established career path with its rewards and perks seduces them…”

That idea of career path, the in-house progression touted throughout companies as a model for success, as  is what took me back to the Goldsmiths.

In short, it worked like this.  There were three levels; masters, journeymen, and apprentices.  As a young apprentice, you’d go and take your place in the workshop, and spend seven years just copying.  Seeing what the people around and above you were doing, then trying to do it yourself.  Once you’d spent around seven years doing that, you’d make a presentation to the guild, showing you understood how to use the material well.

If you passed, you became a journeyman.  You’d leave your workshop where you’d trained, and spend time in different workshops, either in the same city, or further afield (as Sennett puts it, ‘the passive stay home‘).  You’d spend your working life responding to opportunities that arose in different places, and in different contexts.  It was this variety that allowed the journeyman to grow as craftsman.

Then, once the journeyman felt he was ready, he would present to the guild in whichever city he wanted to set up shop in as a master.  The guild would not be judging the journeyman on  ability to use the materials, but on judgement about how and when to use them, and how that moral compass would be reflected through their workshop.

It’s that middle layer, the journeymen, that fascinates me most about the structure of the goldsmiths, and the dissimilarity with the current model for many businesses.  Whereas for the conventional company now, keeping people from apprenticeship all the way through to master-status is seen as a desirable thing.  It saves money, basically.  There might be benefits from consistency of work.  Organisational memory gets longer.

But the journeymen model, that fluid, transient middle layer, was more beneficial in many ways.  Not least, in Sennett’s account, was the observation made by Khaldun in medieval Andalusia of the different between the local, static goldsmiths, and the itinerant travelling ones.  Whilst the latter’s work was ‘made strong by travel and mobility’, the former appeared to be ‘inert and corrupt’.

In essence, they’d stayed in the same place so long that they knew exactly what the game was, and how they could play the system accordingly.  No new ideas, no variance in approach, the same method banged out with a depressing, half-hearted familiarity for an unsuspecting client.

Khaldun summed it up as so; “The good master presides over a travelling house“.

Now think back to John Winsor’s agencies as a closed, shrinking creative system.

The apprentices aren’t even turning up at the door any more.  Interestingly, I saw in passing on twitter recently the MD of a very well-respected ad agency being a little irked that he’d turned up give a talk at a London University to some creatively inclined students, and only two had turned up.  Then again, would you?  Why bother learning how to daub new hieroglyphs on the tombs of brand gods that nobody worships any more?  If you were going to serve an apprenticeship nowadays, where would you start?

The journeymen are off solving problems and using knowledge in different places, with different contexts.  The world has cracked in a thousand different ways, and journeymen have the ability to slip through into new spaces and respond to opportunities there.  And who are the masters in this world now?  Who’s left running the agencies, and what’s their role in this world?  Increasingly, for most, it’s to deliver the short-term growth so beloved of agency holding groups.  And you probably can’t run a ‘travelling house’ and do that in the financial year.

“You don’t become conservative until you have something to conserve” says John.  I wonder how long there will be something to conserve for a lot of these agencies, as everyone from management consultancies to IDEO comes calling at the industry door.




Brands and Static Electricity

Brands and Static Electricity

Posted by on Mar 14, 2014 in brand, design, random inspiration | One Comment

For the last year or so, I’ve been playing around with various forms of static electricity, exploring ways in which to use the Artefact Cards more fluidly with vertical working.  The best thing I’ve found to use them with are Stattys, the most available in the UK is Magic Whiteboard (which is considerably worse than Stattys, but cheaper, accordingly).

This isn’t a post about that though (this from last year is).

I bought the above book, Electrostatics, to try to get a better understanding of how the science works.  I also found a very useful page here on the Triboelectric series, the different sorts of materials that cause static electricity when brought together.

My brain being the analogy-generating machine that it is, I started thinking about all of this in terms of how we work with Brands.  Because much as people who work on brands wish to believe otherwise, brands never become part of people, built into the fabric of their being.  They just stick to them for a set period of time.  And then they’ll slip off, as the charge dissipates.

So reallty, the job is about making sure the conditions are right to keep generating that static bond between people and the things you’re working on.

Make sure you’re rubbing the right materials up against each other; if it ain’t sticking, you may have material problems.

Make sure you’re generating static often enough; brands may look stuck on, but the slighest nudge when then charge is weak will make them slip right off.

And, of course, work out what your balloon and jumper is; what’s the most fun way you can get people generating the static themselves…

(thanks to Phil for kicking this around on twitter when he was meant to be writing a tender)





The New Smithery Site

The New Smithery Site

Posted by on Mar 14, 2014 in technology | No Comments

On prompting from Tom, I thought I’d make a quick note on the new Smithery site.

Now, we’re still about five months short of the third Smithery anniversary, but this is site number four.  I guess there are two extremes when it comes to building sites for your business.  Build it once, and build it brilliantly, and then just tweak as appropriate as you need to.  That does have advantages.  Or, find a platform that you can continually iterate upon, stepping in time with changes in the look and the feel of a wider culture people are seeing elsewhere on the internet.  With four sites in two and a half years, it’s easy to see which approach I subscribe to for Smithery.

It’s built on, the self-hosted version of, and this time around is using the excellent Port theme from the guys at Theme Trust which costs a not unreasonable £30.  There are a few smart things they’ve done with page templates to make the WordPress platform jump through hoops and perform tricks I hadn’t clocked that it would before.

In all honesty, I’d started wondering about shifting off WordPress, but the creativity and ability of minds greater than I are still clearly weaving magic on top of the platform, so here I shall remain. Standing, shoulders, giants etc.

Not only is the site responsive (menaing it’ll reform to whatever device you’re looking at it on), it is also highly legible, perhaps in the way that Medium presents itself.  I’ve put a couple of things up on Medium so far, but haven’t worked out why I should write things there when I can write them here.

A final word on the header images on the main page.  As an experiment, I’m going to take pictures of MTPW > MPWT written on an Artefact Card wherever I go for a bit, and rotate the image when I get the chance.  There are all sorts of ideas about making that rotation automatic based on nearest foursquare checkins, but that’s a lot of hard work for something I don’t know much about yet.  So, until I see how I like it, and other folks like it, I’ll keep it handcranked.

(actually, new tagline for Smithery… keepin’ it handcranked since 2011… ok, maybe not…)

2014 – Fracking The Social Web

It’s always a pleasure to speak at Squared, and today I was back with a new version of the ‘Are Brands Fracking The Social Web’ talk.  As always, shared for everyone, and all thoughts, builds and ideas around the topic are most welcome: just click here to see the presentation.

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 15.02.32

Cultural Crossover of the Day

Posted by on Feb 27, 2014 in rivetings | No Comments

Weird… A ‘sushi wrap’ at Pret. Basically a chicken wrap in seaweed. This is a thing now, it seems.