Thursday, February 9, 2012

Risky Ideas Turn Into Smart Businesses When Your Values Are Clear

This article originally ran in Fast Company as part of a Collaborative Fund-curated series on creativity and values written by thought leaders in the for-profit, for-good business space.

Risky Ideas Turn Into Smart Businesses When Your Values Are Clear

Written by: Craig Dalton

Even though Craig Dalton’s business had so many things "wrong" with it, honesty, transparency, and connection between his customers and the artisans making his product were enough to create a successful company.

The advent of new technologies often begets the decline of established crafts. But sometimes, to quote the cliché, when innovation closes one door, it opens another. When we started DODOcase--which makes iPad cases using bookbinding techniques--on paper we were doing lots of things “wrong.”

We had decided to manufacture our products in one of the most expensive cities in the world using techniques that were hundreds of years old. We operated without an office, meaning we had no permanent production facility, and we had just a small core team. No one had seen the iPad at this point, so we designed a case for a product we’d never laid eyes on or used. As it turns out, each of these seemingly questionable, and certainly not advisable, decisions turned out to be keys in building a profitable business that encourages sustainable products and creates local jobs.
Tweaking an old industry to support a new one

San Francisco was home to a dwindling bookbinding industry that was eager to find new ways to remain relevant, as well as a vibrant woodworking community. This gave us access to a pool of talented local artisans to work with our product concept and execution. Once we had these relationships in place and a prototype in hand, we elected to go live with our simple e-commerce site before we had ever physically held an iPad. We had a feeling that people would appreciate a quality product that was locally built, as well as one that supported the adaptation of ancient techniques. The choice to employ local artisans wasn’t just a move we made to be "good," but a valuable investment because the connection between consumer and craftsman quickly became a large component of our identity.
Honest businesses are more flexible

In general, but especially because we were launching a case for an iPad that had never been seen, transparency in our processes, timelines, and purpose was essential. Social media proved to be an amazing vehicle to accomplish this goal, and we freely tweeted and Facebooked about who we were as craftsmen, and how we were progressing in our production. Having customers understand from us personally that these cases were being built for them, by hand, and by local craftspeople was crucial to them tolerating the wait. We would never go so far as to say our customers “liked” waiting in those early months, but surprisingly, the scarcity of the product proved to translate into an important marketing vehicle for us. Customers tended to post when they finally received their DodoCase. Because everyone shared their anticipation and excitement upon receiving their cases, including us, we built an active community between our company and our customers.
Encouraging values through practice

The mission of our business, then and now, is encouraging consumers to consider their purchases carefully. Our message had to ring clear: We preserve the art of bookbinding, create jobs in San Francisco, and make a product that people feel emotionally connected to. We are able to breathe freely, and act with total transparency simply because we have nothing to hide. As it turns out, people gravitate toward honesty, even (and maybe especially) if you are doing things "wrong" on paper. Today we have a full-fledged bookbindery, woodshop, and office space in San Francisco. We continue to work with the local businesses and craftsmen to incorporate new book binding techniques into our products. We’ve collaborated with local artists including Rex Ray and Jenny Beorkrem of Ork Posters notoriety, as well as large specialty brands such as J.Crew.

Risky ideas can turn into smart businesses when core values and goals remain clear. As people adopt new technologies and are bombarded by mass-produced goods, they’ll increasingly search for emotional connection and individualization. The businesses who can tap into this with a clear and honest message will prosper, and maybe change manufacturing for the better.