Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Indie vs Corporate

A couple of months ago I took part in my first Craft Social. Craft Social is monthly crafty chat cohosted by Barbara Forbes-Lyons (@penguintrax) and Diane Gilleland (@sisterdiane). Each month they host an online social via Twitter. Crafters, artists and creative types can share current projects, talk about the process of art and craft, and meet new people!

The March chat was about branding. The fast and furious conversation provided me with lots of food for thought. Part of it included some back and forth about indie vs. corporate and I found myself feeling a little defensive adrift. Lorna's Laces is a corporation, but I don't think we're "corporate". We're six people who come to work every day to make pretty string, not some behemoth mindlessly churning out yarn.

The idea of what is indie or corporate got under my skin enough that I started this blog post the very next day. Yes, that was back in March. Life continued on. There was dyeing to be done and stock markets to ignore. But every so often it would come to mind.

Then this morning Bette came into work livid because she's just learned that one of the big hand-dyed yarn companies has an Etsy store. "How is that possible" she asked, "That goes against everything I think of when I think of Etsy."

We got to talking. Who should be on Etsy? Is it only for indie folks? What exactly does it mean to be condsidered indie? We started talking about criteria. We came up with more questions than anything else.

Is it only for one person operations? Then you couldn't have a creative collaboration like Ann and Kay at Mason Dixon. To take it to the extreme...can you pay your kid to go to the post office for you and still be indie? Technically that would mean you have an employee.

What about the idea of using outside help? Can someone who is indie hire someone else to help them with advertising? Build their website? Or does it make more sense for the artist to focus on their creative work and leave the other stuff to professionals?

Does size matter? Is it about income? If it is, what is the threshold?

Could organizational scheme be part of the picture? As I mentioned, Lorna's Laces is a corporation, but we could just as easily be organized as an LLC or a sole proprietorship. That's just bookkeeping. Does it matter in terms of perception of the nature of a business?

What about distribution channels? Is selling wholesale different than selling retail? Some companies started out selling retail and then moved to wholesale. Some have done the reverse. Others maintain a presence in both.

Does it matter where the work is done? Is working from home different than renting space? But then you have to consider where someone lives. If an artist lives somewhere with a basement or lots of property and outbuildings, they could build a pretty big company from home. On the other hand, a city dweller might need to find outside space for even a modest business.

As we continued to talk, the discussion shifted a little. Has the reach of the internet changed the fundamental nature of how we look at business and of the people and organizations behind them?

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 last thing I'm going to put out there is the question of whether or not we need to talk about some new definitions. Should we think about a new moniker for a company that might fall outside the realm of indie but isn't really corporate? Craft? Small-batch? Artisan?

Whew, there are so many questions and I'm not sure what the answers are. I'd love to hear what you think. Let's start a conversation.


Beth said...

All great questions that I've thought about a lot over the past year. I am a corporation too just to keep my personal finances separate from the business finances. I have a full time employee and a helper who comes about once a week. Yet, people sometimes see my shop a one of the bigger guys and they prefer to buy from indie sellers instead.

We have 1000 square feet with 2/3 of that being classroom space.
So it'a a pretty small operation around here.

I've had the same reactions with some of the sellers on Etsy but where is the line exactly?

Shannon Okey said...

Such good questions to raise, Beth! I run into this all the time with Cooperative Press...apparently I do a very good job of "looking big," since some people assume we're much more than Me, In An Office, With A Computer. And sometimes they like to carp at me for things I can't really being just Me, In An Office, With A Computer And Only 24 Hours In A Day.

I think indie, or whatever you want to call it, is more of an outlook than an Official Brand Thing. I want to make sure my authors get paid fairly (in the same way you no doubt make sure your staff gets paid).

I want to have the flexibility to make decisions to ensure this can happen -- in other words no "we're not going to make our street estimates this quarter...quick, lay off a bunch of people so the stock market will like us!" nonsense.

I want to make all decisions that concern the business in such a way that we can continue to improve even as we grow and change, instead of getting locked in to one business model or process.

If you wanted to compare me to an Etsy seller, I think jewelry is a good one to use -- the price of gold and silver keeps shooting up, so some jeweler friends of mine are moving to non-gold and silver findings in order to keep their products affordable.

They don't want to skimp where it counts (the main focal pieces used in the jewelry), so they change their methods of earring-ear-distribution instead. By that same token, we've chosen to use digital distro on our books. Same cool books (same cool jewelry), just slightly different, and often improved upon, compared to the print book.

We (me and the jeweler) value our customers too much to skimp on the essential stuff, and we want to continue to have a relationship with them. Recognizing that they're the ones paying the bills here and acting accordingly sets me apart from a big company who only cares about the big investors and to hell with the people who actually use the product!

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, very interesting!

For total honesty's sake: I've never used your yarn before (not for any particular reason other than my stash overfloweth and I haven't bought myself yarn in a long time), but just hearing your brand name in the past I thought you were a "big" corporation. I had no idea LL was a six-person affair. I guess b/c you're "famous," in my eyes at least, and available in lots of places, maybe? I don't know why exactly, but mentally at least I would not have named you "indie."

I don't know what constitutes Indie, or what the issues are with fitting or not fitting that label. Indie dyers, in my right-of-the-top-of-my-head reaction/definition, are fiber artists who mostly work alone doing everything that their business needs. They sell online almost exclusively, through their own shop (Etsy or otherwise) and maybe in a LYS or two. They sell in person at a craft festival or trade show, etc., but probably don't have their own storefront anywhere. Not that this is what I think an indie dyer HAS to be; it's just sort of what I always picture in my head when I think of that phrase.

I don't think of Etsy as being an Indie site, I think of it being a handmade site. I have a friend, for instance, who has a shop there (not yarn related) and she makes - or hires someone to make following her explicit directions - all of the items in that shop. I don't think of her as "indie," per se, but I do think of her as a small business owner who sells handmade goods, so in my mind she fits the Etsy profile.

Etsy, for me, is about small businesses having a way to promote their handmade goods. Most of those are what I would consider to be indie artists, but they don't all have to be, as long as their product is handmade (plus, of course, then there's the supplies/vintage side but that's a whole different discussion). I'm not sure what the big yarn brand is you mention here, but it would seem strange to me if I saw a brand on Etsy that I can find in any local yarn store I go into, for instance. In my mind a company that big isn't really handmade any more, or it's made by so many hands that it doesn't really qualify in my mind as being handmade. But I don't own Etsy, or the Internet, so I guess I'll just keep buying from the artists whose work I enjoy and leave it at that, LOL!

Elizabeth said...

I don't have a shop on Etsy, nor do I make anything for sale, just a happy knitter, but you raise a lot of interesting questions. The idea of a large company selling on Etsy seems to defeat the purpose of it's existence.
However, where is the line drawn? Just like in our government the more something is legislated the less freedom people have and the more cumbersome the system becomes until only the rich and powerful seem to have a voice.
I believe a group like Etsy belongs to individuals and small businesses. A place for regular people who have perhaps neither the desire nor the wherewithal to become a large corporation.
But who get to decide? The current Etsy vendors, perhaps?

Kota said...

For me your type of operation even though you are incorporated is still an indi op as it is a small micro business. But when large companies with over 100 employees are on Etsy then I believe it is crossing the line.
For example Rowan should not be on Etsy and I dont think they are. But for example sake I will explain why I dont think they should be there. Employs over 100 so no longer a micro or small operation now a large organisation. Rowan was once an indi company but it is now an corporate branch of Coats and multinational conglomerate so they can no longer claim to be indi.

Anj said...

Such an interesting conversation... I think indie is a'state of mind'! We used to run a cloth diaper retail company and when we started we felt - as new retailers and new business owners - that we wanted to be perceived as 'big'. We worded our web site blurb appropriately ambiguously etc etc. And we got parcels addressed to the 'returns dept' and cross customers who got a busy signal when I was talking to another customer on the phone. We've moved on.. and into the yarn retail world. Now we think it makes sense for people to know we're small... we get phone messages apologising in case they've 'woken the baby' and effusive 'thank yous' for the personal touches we add to our parcels. The two 'corporations' are exactly the same. Just me & the hubbie, in the same office space with the same hours and the same attitude but *such* a different reaction from our customers. All just as a result of how we word our web site 'blurb'... so interesting...

Anonymous said...

As with so many things in this world I think we all have a notion of what an indie operation is vs a small business vs large business vs corportation but when actually get down to defining these things, especially in "committee", it all becomes a little hazy. It is unfortunate that the word corportation has come to mean big when it is really a bookkeeping/legal thing and a corportation can be any size.

Laura said...

I think we can blame Ebay {G} Ebay use to be the haven for the individuals/cottage shops. Now you can barely find anything sold by a single person/couple of people because companies seem to dominate. I think people are afraid of that happening to Etsy. What is corporate though? That is a good question and will be reading the comments as they come in.

Oraxia said...

Interesting, I really hadn't thought about Indie vs Corporate. I guess Indie to me doesn't necessarily mean better to me--it's just another label. What matters when I'm purchasing things is that someone has creative investment in it, because that usually makes it a great item. There's plenty of "indie" crafters out there that are more or less just producing knock-offs of corporately produced things (and vice-versa). Indie or Corporate, I want to go where the creativity is, and preferably where the creative engines behind the items are fairly compensated for the items.

sarah said...

I am purely a consumer when it comes to this topic, but here are some thoughts. Most corporations started off as "indie" - a couple of people and an idea or product that took off, which is a good thing (subjective, I suppose). I perceive "corporate" in the negative as something that has put so many layers of bureaucracy between creative and administrative that that it has diluted or "blandified" the original intent. Growth as a result of high demand isn't a bad thing. Neither is hiring adminstrative support to allow the creatives to actually be creative. In fact, it usually breeds more success, since there's nothing worse than poor service from a one-person shop that's overwhelmed and cranky to be dealing with customers since what they really want to be doing is playing with color. Anyway, I'm all for an "indie" keeping their cred, even if they have a sizeable staff, because chances are, this staff results in consistancy and reliability with regards to product and customer service - which is good for everyone involved.

Donna Druchunas said...

"Rowan was once an indi company but it is now an corporate branch of Coats and multinational conglomerate so they can no longer claim to be indi."

True but that has nothing to do with them having 100 employees, that is still a small business, if you're comparing to the entire spectrum of business sizes. It's not a micro business but 100 employees is not a mega corporation.

Jenn C. said...

This is a very interesting discussion, and a lot to think about.

As a consumer, I don't think that I judge the size of a business on the number of people or the space where the business happens, but on the reach of the product. I would consider Lorna's Laces to be a "big" company (or at least not an "indie") because of your reach within the industry - you wholesale, your products are available all over the country, you take out ads in most of the major magazines, you are a "big name" in the knitting industry, despite only having 6 employees. And none of these are bad things in and of themselves - I think it's great that you have been so successful - but to my mind, it moves you out of the realm of "indie".

The businesses I expect to see on Etsy are the ones that can't compete with that (for any number of reasons) and who are using Etsy either to build their businesses to the point of being able to strike out on their own or because they can't or don't want to grow their business beyond one where using a centralized market place is a support for their business.

I would prefer if Etsy remained place where I could find things that I could probably not find at my local yarn shop or a plethora of online outlets.

Kim Werker said...

Such a meaty topic, Beth, and a great and meaty conversation. I did some thinking "out loud" over on my blog about this, not wanting to clog your comments with my meanderings –

kristi said...

Fascinating conversation! "Indie" to me means not part of a larger entity. That you, as the owner of an independent company, are in charge of decision making, both creative and financial.

Not that you can't have many employees, or a hierarchical structure, etc. You have a direct relationship with your customers. There isn't an intermediary or a board of directors or stockholders to please.

I think sometimes "indie" can mean amateur or, more charitably, edgy or raw. But honestly, if I want to order from you, I don't care if your kid is sick. If I run a yarn store, I need the yarn. And you as a yarn maker need to receive payment from me even if my cat just died and the air conditioner broke. Being independent might mean that there is genuine sympathy involved between us, but in the end, it's business and being "indie" is no excuse for not behaving professionally.

CrochetBlogger said...

Very great questions/conversation going on here. I tend to think of myself as someone who buys from indie sellers but I would count Lorna's Laces in that so really I guess I mean small stores (artisan shops, as you said!)

Ultimately I think what's most important is how the company / seller behaves. What are their values? How is their customer service? Do they donate anything to charity or help others in some way? I'd rather work with a company that invests effort into those things than an indie seller who doesn't.

M.K. said...

While I see that many people hold Etsy up as representative of "indie" I don't think it of it as being an indie business itself. Many sellers (myself included) are not happy with the number of sellers who are blatantly violating Etsy policies. At the same time, I realize that Etsy's revenues benefit from having as many listings as possible. There's a difference between Etsy's image and Etsy's actions as a company.

Lorna's Laces said...

Fantastic stuff! Keep it coming!

Lorna's Laces said...

Space Cadet put her thoughts on her blog.

Kristin Nicholas said...

I have thought about this a lot. I worked for a small yarn company back in the 1980's. We were a group of individuals working towards a common goal of growing a business into something. We worked long and hard hours, sometimes having success, sometimes struggling. It was always a challenge to keep it going.

We never could have grown into a "big yarn company" if there wasn't an entrepreneurial spirit there that we all shared. Sure we were a corporation. They are necessary in business. Did we have the "indie" spirit. Yes we did.

Now I work for myself and my family. I am an "indie" but I don't think I am perceived as an "indie" because my yarns and books are sold by large corporations.

That's okay with me - in fact I much prefer it that way. I'm not interested in shipping a skein of yarn to some far flung corner of the world. I want to stay creative and interested in what I do as opposed to the bogged-down-ness I felt when working for a company.

It's all about choice. And perception too. People can think about me as they want. The key is to not let it bother you and go forth creating and making and whatever.

And as an aside, if Coats didn't buy Rowan when they were in "foreclosure" we wouldn't have Rowan in the pool anymore. So all you Rowan fans can thank your lucky stars that Coats kept it all going with organization, structure and $.

Great conversation - I will check back to see if anyone else adds to this. Thanks Kim Werker for pointing me this way.

execudiva said...

I personally think that a company loses the "indie" moniker once their business grows enough to support multiple people. By support, I mean an employee's only livelihood.

As business owners, once we have employees (if we are decent human beings) our business decisions are affected by the fact that there are people who rely upon us for their only means of support. Yes, those employees are working for us, but our decisions do affect them.

For example, it's much easier to pass on an increase in wool prices to your customers than say an increase in your health insurance.

I guess though, my most important point is what does it really matter what you're called as long as you are successful and happy?

Kim Dolce said...

It's all a matter of perception. We can define and categorize until we're blue in the face and there will always be someone who can't be pigeon-holed and probably shouldn't be. But what is it that triggers people's perceptions?

Several months ago, I found myself similarly taken aback when some good friends in the industry said they didn't think of me as an indie designer. Sure, I have a tech editor and turn to others for things like website creation, but I'm pretty much a one-woman show. So, if I'm not an indie designer then what am I? Their answer - a professional. I wasn't sure if I should be flattered or upset. Flattered because I would never undertake a business venture and that's what Dolce Handknits was always intended to be, without presenting myself as professionally as possible. Upset because, well, let's face it, there's a definite attraction in the marketplace to all things indie.

My friends then named several designers they did consider indies. Without exception, all were very well-known and sought-after, all have huge followings on Ravelry and most have employees (yup, plural) helping to run their companies, each certainly larger than my own.

As a culture we love the underdog, root for David rather than Goliath. Is it just that or is it possibly that we can feel all warm and fuzzy about the indie company and in this digital age, actually feel that we know them? Not likely we'll feel the same about some unreachable, unknowable corporate entity?

Hmm, could that be part of it? I could bring this back to my own indie vs. professional conundrum. I'm pretty personable, but you might have to meet me to find that out. I don't think I translate well in the digital realm. You won't find me tweeting and I prefer to let my personality run free in the real world rather than flaunt it in the virtual one.