When is "Corporate" Not So Corporate?

19 Sep 2011

Corporation St road sign on King Edward Building, Corporation Street
Image by ell brown, via Flickr

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.)

Lorna's Laces Shepherd Sock
Image by Rachel Allyson, via Flickr

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?"

Corporate Water
Image by uncleboatshoes, via Flickr

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.)

suits [uniform and uniformity]
Image by theIGI™, via Flickr

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.)

Image by trawets1, via Flickr

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?

business chart showing success
Image by s_falkow, via Twitter

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.

Seedling Planting
Image by USFS Region 5, via Flickr

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?


This is a really interesting post. I work for a national non-profit organisation in Australia, and the same atmosphere of resentment (based on envy) towards organisations with monetary or marketing success exists in this world too. I agree with the comments others have made and try to judge companies not by size, but by their ethical standards, professionalism, and responsibility towards the earth and its inhabitants.

Wow, that's interesting, Christabel. I guess envy based on monetary success runs deep in modern culture.

Great article and an interesting discussion. How about calling such companies "artisanal". That's a bit bigger than a single-person indie company, but not big-business-corporate. To me, artisanal still emphasizes the intentional hands-on care from the company owner, even though there might be a few more hands working in the business and a different way of categorizing it (for tax purposes) on paper.

I like that word, Sheri! I also like how it harkens back to the days of craft-tradespeople. And these days, it seems to be a kind of code-word for "high quality" in some circles - also a nice connotation! :-)

I know I'm in the minority among the crafty-internet-culture set, but I really have no problem with a company getting as big as it wants, as long as it's doing it RIGHT. IE- not taking advantage of employees or customers, no shady business practices, and delivering a good product. If someone's doing a good job, then they should be able to make as much off that as they can without suffering because they've lost the "indie" niche. I suppose there's a case to be made about keeping things local (which was some of the beef with Stumptown expanding... but they're already shipping coffee in from all over the world, who cares where the shops are?)

Interesting point about Stumptown and keeping things local... Duane and his staff source coffee from growers who use sound growing and processing practices, and whom they can pay a fair price for excellent quality. There's some stuff on that here: http://www.stumptowncoffee.com/coffees

In the Hello Etsy session, there was a little talk about "localistas" who were giving Stumptown a hard time for sourcing beans from outside Oregon, but the fact is, not all raw materials for all businesses are grown locally. If a company sources non-locally, but that creates non-exploitative economic opportunities for another small business somewhere in the world, it seems completely fine to me. Though I am a fan of buying local whenever possible.

Thanks for adding your comment, Alex!

I'd agree with Sheri, I like "artisan." It's what I answer when people ask me what I do, and I like that it implies a profession that exists in the strange crossover space between craft and art. It implies work that is based on skill, and on the whims and techniques of the producer.

The word is a bit trendy these days, it lives in the space that "gourmet" used to, in food circles, now that gourmet is a word that is considerably debased. "Gourmet coffee" is now something that comes vacuum sealed in a can. "Artisan-roasted coffee" is something you have to go to a specialty store to buy, you know? Trend aside, though, I think the traditional meaning of the word still has legs.

That's fascinating - I had no idea "gourmet" had lost its luster in food circles. Crazy how trends put us on and off these things, isn't it?

Excellent article Diane... You raise some great points. I have to agree with Alex that companies growing bigger by doing things right should be celebrated. don't we want to encourage good practices and an Indie mentality? I think the thing is that many companies do forget their roots when they grow larger, just by the nature of the beast. And that's not necessarily evil either. Starbucks started out indie, and are now ubiquitous, but even if they lost some indie cred in doing so, they brought on a new wave of indie coffee shops that compete with them. the entire coffee market has expanded as a result.

The other point I'd make about the local issue... Although I agree with the idea of trying to source locally and support your area, and to stay local to your area, those who DONT live in your area don't get the benefit of that. the poor people in podunktown would like good coffee/craftyness too!

And hey, don't diss on MBAs, either... I promise they didn't give me the mark of the devil when I got mine ;)

HAHA! Sorry, Dot! Dang, my assumptions are showing again. :-/

I totally agree with you that, at a certain point of size, the original considerations of a once-indie business can be smeared, obscured, or downright abandoned, depending on who's driving. Very well-said about Starbucks. Although, I admit that I no longer buy coffee from them, because the quality doesn't seem to be there anymore.

This is an interesting view point/question. I admit that I hear corporate and run away thinking of it exactly as you portray it. Big, huge, impersonal, and all of the other connotations you might think of. "Corprate America" I don't think of it as simply a business structure. Which really is quite silly when I think about it. So yes, I think we do need to rethink this sort of language and the perjorative slant we put on it. Indeed, I think most indie business people would like to live above subsistence level. So why not allow room for growth into business structures that allow that? Ahh, new language. Yes, if that means we can celebrate sucess and encourage growth. This is a wonderful post with much food for thought. I thank you for that.

Thank YOU, LeAnn!

I think this is a discussion where our crafty-mindset can become a little artsy-neurotic. I think the basic phrase, small business, fits just fine. Most entrepreneurs aspire to be one, why would crafters put the world into only one-woman shows & giant corps? I think sometimes we're too enamored with our own crafty/artsy creativity and feel we're SO different than everyone else. We need to remember that at the end of the day, whatever the business, it's still just a business. We have to make the same business growth decisions as everyone else. (I am speaking of how I've been at times BTW, and a general atmosphere I've picked up.)

As far as the word corporate, for me, the phrase "big box" also does the trick. For example, I aspire to be a small corporation, but not a big box.

I see the same atmosphere you're describing too, Elizabeth. There was a lot of fairly highfalutin' talk along these lines at Hello Etsy as well. And while on the one hand, I like celebrating small indie businesses, I completely agree with you that no matter how special the business, the things it needs to do in order to sustain and grow are pretty universal. I'd love to see us crafters get a solid grip once and for all on the "boring" stuff like accounting, taxes and record-keeping. With that stuff under our collective belt, we can celebrate our uniqueness all we like - and do it as profitable, sustaining enterprises.

Is it just me, or have we culturally seen an uptick in class distinction the last few years? We (meaning the masses) are angry and frustraited with anyone who has more than we have, and thereby think it's our right to be nasty to/verbally assault/expect our fair share from those who aren't "us?" Recent politics are an example as the Buffet Bill -- taxing the rich -- attempts to advance. Sure, ol' Warren can afford to pay more. But is it my right to stick it to him until he does?

Off my soapbox -- and away from all those political blogs!

Interesting idea, Liz. Someone made a great comment at CCE last month - wish I could recall who. The idea was that, when we work alone in our studios and don't see other people regularly, our worldview can shrink to a point where we take events too personally and assume others always have nefarious intentions. I think unpleasant distinctions like indie vs. corporate may be born here. And maybe some of the current political mess, too. But that exhausts me way too much to get into. :-)

Good questions, all!! I'm an indie dyer, and I look at other companies with "bigger" names than mine with a fair bit of jealousy. But instead of trying to down their business, I try to figure out how to make mine more like theirs. I don't think of them as corporate in a Wal-Mart sense, more as people who probably started out like me and somehow figured out how to make it big. But on my low days, there's a part of me that hates them for getting what I want, LOL! I guess that's where a lot of this talk of "corporate" businesses comes from. I mean, on a very basic level, if you're starting a business and it's NOT to make money (at least in part), then what are you doing it for? Why be obnoxious about people who are making money AND doing something that they love? I don't think it's fair to say that a company has lost its soul just because it has increased its profit margin (not that anyone is saying that, but it's sort of the idea behind labeling someone as "corporate," no?).
Sometimes I think, when you're dying yarn on your kitchen counter and barely making any profit from each lonely little skein you sell (or whatever you're selling), it's hard to visualize how you could actually earn a sustainable income from doing this thing that you love. So maybe you look at other companies, like Lorna's Laces or someone else who has "made it big," and you wonder how they managed it if they started out like you. So maybe you assume they made a deal with the Devil to make profits that seem totally unrealistic from your small little view of the indie world, but in reality they just grew their business and made good choices to get them to move onward and upward instead of remaining stagnant.
Now what we need is for one of THEM to write a blog about how they did it so the rest of us can do it, too, LOL! :) If only we spent more time sharing the craft instead of grumbling about it behind closed doors and on Internet forums.

I'd love to see more transparency along those lines, too, Jess. Thank you for sharing those jealous feelings you get on your low days so honestly - you are not alone there! I think those emotions hit most of us at times. And I also think that there are many instances where someone we perceive as having "made it big" is someone who still feels like she's struggling. One of my theories is that we use old-media assumptions there. If we're exposed to the same person over and over, we assume they must be famous and prosperous. That math may have worked better in the pre-internet era because it was so much harder to get exposure then. Not so much now, though!

I like "small business" or "family business" in the ordinary way that one would understand it. There is a definition of "small business" in the political sphere which allows big corporations set up as shells to call themselves so, but I doubt there would be much confusion about that when one is talking about small batch or handmade goods. A corporation is merely a business structure and the fact that one has incorporated only means a serious intention to make a living in a continuing business. There's nothing wrong with making a living at your art or craft.

I agree - nothing in the world! Thanks for adding your perspective, Ellen.

I appreciate this article. Before my current career I worked in engineering and traveled extensively consulting with companies large and small. I have a hard time listening to people bash Company X or Company Y, because to me they aren't faceless - they are Steve, with the twin boys and Roger who gets off at 3 and goes to visit his mother in the afternoon. Real people working and raising families, just like us. Companies are made up of people, and like people some behave better than others. I would like to see us all be a littler kinder to one another.

That's beautifully-said, Alicia, and thank you.

Corporations are not necessarily evil, there are many that I trust and have generally warm feelings about, but then there are companies like this.

Companies, corporations, businesses... I think it's just the word "corporate" that has drifted into the derogatory, implying soulless, suit-wearing, employee and competitor crushing monolith.

To me artisanal is the other side of bespoke. One tailored to you, the other crafted with care with respect to the materials.

So, "corporation", "business", "professional"... it's just "corporate" that's the problem. Does the term need reclaiming? "Indie" has a few implications as well such as rebelliousness and attitude. Language is a funny thing. 8-)

I've never really given this much thought before but you raised some excellent points here! I guess it's ironic that so many of my cohorts are just concerned with trying to simply make a living from their art businesses...receiving a fair wage for what we do and so on....but then if someone DOES become financially successful, people may turn on them for "selling out". And I find I hear the whole "starving artist" thing thrown around a lot...suggestions that if you're actually making a living from your art, then you're no longer suffering (I guess money cures all woes) and so you're no longer an "authentic" artist. It's interesting the perceptions that arise, isn't it?
By the way, your question of are we in this together or aren't we could be another whole article!

Great point about the "Starving Artist" mythology, Cyn. It might be said that many artists simultaneously reject AND live that myth. Money-thinking isn't always easy - I know it isn't for me!

I agree, "are we in this together or aren't we" could be its own post. The thought of writing it makes me want to lie down at the moment, but maybe something will change. :-)

So well put! This question comes up all the time in my work with Urban Craft Uprising as well, and something we're continually trying to wrap our heads around. I was bummed to not get to make it to Hello Etsy, but watched your Pearcy/Sorensen on the streaming site and loved it! Nothing better than getting to sit in my back office with some knitting and listen to smart people talk about this stuff :)