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When is "Corporate" Not So Corporate?
Sometimes a big idea takes a long time to germinate, and then it kind of explodes all of a sudden. The seed of this post dates all the way back to the Craft Social we had in March – it was a discussion about small business branding. If you like, you can download a transcript.
In that discussion, a certain thread emerged about how small, indie businesses were better off developing visual branding that emphasized their smallness and indie-ness, instead of trying to look big and "corporate."
Okay, so, I should mention for those who aren't familiar that Craft Social is a pubic discussion event that takes place on Twitter. And as many of us know, posts on Twitter are limited to 140 characters. When you're trying to express big ideas in 140 characters, it's easy to miss the mark – or, to rely on verbal shorthand, like using the word "corporate" to mean "giant, impersonal companies that are the antithesis of everything we stand for in the craft community."
(In that Craft Social discussion, I and others definitely used the word "corporate" with that meaning several times.)
Well, Barbara and I had an email from Beth Casey of Lorna's Laces soon after that, in which she pointed out that in fact, Lorna's Laces is a corporation. It's a small corporation - just six people. But they consider themselves as indie as any one-person indie business. Why, Beth very rightly asked, did we want to place such a stigma on the idea of bigger businesses? Were we implying that crafty businesses shouldn't be allowed to grow bigger?
Wow. Those were important questions. Some time passed, and Beth wrote this blog post, which raises even more important questions, such as:
"Are small independent companies better? Or is there comfort in the reliability of a big name? Are we willing to pay more because we know the person (in real life or virtual life) who made it or harvested it?"
The more I think about it, the more I realize that I've had huge assumptions around what "corporate" means, and I suspect that I'm not alone. I think these assumptions are largely fed by the media we consume – how many times a year, for example, do we encounter references to big, rapacious corporations ruining the world in one way or another?
And yet, at the end of the day, a corporation is just a business structure. For some companies, it's the best option for making their liability, accounting and taxes simpler. Corporations come in all sizes and shapes, and yes – some of them are grown versions of indie companies, like Lorna's Laces.
I had another revelation over the weekend, when I moderated a discussion between these two people at the Hello Etsy conference in Portland. On the left is Rebecca Pearcy, who owns Queen Bee Creations. On the right, Duane Sorensen, who owns Stumptown Coffee. These are very well-known local business people, and this was my first time meeting both of them.
I realized that before I met Duane for the first time, I had some very wrong assumptions about him. After all, Stumptown Coffee is a pretty big company, with multiple locations around town. It recently took on outside investors to help it grow. (And boy, did the company take some heat in the local press for this "selling out.")
I thought Duane would be a fairly button-down kind of guy with an MBA in his pocket. I thought he'd be very "corporate." But you know what? He's really amazing. His whole orientation is around his mission to make great coffee for people, and to support his community of staff and the world community of coffee farmers. He's never been to business school. He gives his staff health insurance and actively looks for ways to give them new opportunities within the company. He's funny and human and really inspiring. (Watch the video here. Rebecca's really inspiring as well.)
So, I think "corporate" is a more damaging language shorthand than we may realize. I find myself worrying about how we apply it when we talk about businesses in general, and our community of small businesses in particular. I worry about our "us vs. them" philosophy, where we indies are the good guys and corporations are bad – because I'm afraid that, under this mindset, there's no middle ground into which our indie companies can grow.
The thing is, if you have a small business and you grow it to any size, sooner or later, you'll likely need to choose a safer business structure than a sole proprietorship. (Safer for your financial, liability, and tax pictures, that is.) You may also need to hire some help, and yes, maybe take on outside investment. And you can absolutely do these things without losing your soul. I also think you should be able to make these decisions without repercussion from your community.
(Who remembers, for example, what happened when Emily Martin was on Martha Stewart's TV show, and Martha made an unfounded comment about Emily making six figures a year? Emily endured a lot of backlash as a result.)
Is prosperity really such an evil thing? When one of our own does the necessary hard work and learning to grow a business beyond subsistence level, why should that engender anything but congratulations? Are we in this together, or aren't we?
Let's face it – the more indie companies are able to grow, the more opportunity they can afford to create, and consequently the more opportunities there are for all of us. This doesn't mean that these small companies have to become huge and soulless – but it probably does mean that they need to take on different kinds of business structures and a certain maturity around money-handling. And these choices may influence the way they handle some parts of day-to-day business. But is that necessarily "corporate," or is it simply responsible?
Does the world still contain some of those proverbially soulless corporations? Oh, yes. But it really may be time to re-examine our attitudes around "corporate" and create some space for our community of small businesses to grow bigger without enduring judgements for it.
I'm certainly going to make a study of my own assumptions, and I'm going to make an effort to connect with more owners of "big" crafty companies, so I can see the human faces behind them.
Incidentally, I asked Beth Casey to preview this post, and she offered up one more great question:
"I wonder if there's something to be said for creating a new moniker that describes an organization like Lorna's Laces. We no longer dye in our basement, but we aren't Red Heart, either. Small batch or something?"
What are your thoughts? What does "corporate" mean to you, and do you know of any larger craft companies that operate from an indie mindset? What would you call a larger indie company?