How the Internet saved the artisan producer

Handmade goods – from whiskey to chocolate to pickles – are thriving

Today’s rich trade in heritage goods is happening because of disruptive technologies, not in spite of them.

Today’s rich trade in heritage goods is happening because of disruptive technologies, not in spite of them.

Tue, Sep 2, 2014, 15:52

A recent article in The Economist pointed to what it called a “paradox” in the aftermath of disruptive innovation. Some old technologies, after being rendered obsolete by better and cheaper alternatives (indeed even after whole industries based on them have been decimated), manage to “re-emerge” to the point that they sustain healthy businesses. Think mechanical Swiss watches, now enjoying strong sales. Or fountain pens, or vinyl records. Or small-batch, handmade goods – from whiskey to chocolate to pickles.

But this is part and parcel of the digital disruption remaking every aspect of the global economy. The very technologies that likely disrupted the legacy industry in the first place are the same ones devoted practitioners are using to forge new supply chains and digital platforms for a more efficient, better connected version of the old market. The same disruption is driving both the decline and, later, the re-emergence. There is no paradox.

Consider the re-emergence of artisanal goods. No doubt you are aware of the explosion of the market – some call it a movement – in handcrafted products. At times, it seems, the borough of Brooklyn has become one giant artist colony, with everyone working on something – whiskey, woodworking tools, the reinvention of the egg cream – targeted to a small but impassioned fan-base.

Who are these makers if not the revivers of dying or, in some cases, long extinct technologies? Yet it’s thanks to new digital tools such as Etsy, an Internet marketplace selling handmade goods from around the world; and Kickstarter, the “crowdfunding” site that mediates donation-based funding for a range of products and services, that these artisans can now find and serve their tiny, global markets of customers. These are segments that would have been impossible for individual artisans to organise in a cost-effective way before the rise of the Internet and electronic communication tools that cut out expensive middlemen and asset-heavy enterprises.

Nostalgic goods. Artisanal goods. Disrupted technology goods. Each of these are businesses whose customers are devoted, but few and far between. Fortunately, in the digital age we can have our Turkish Taffy and eat it, too. Today’s rich trade in heritage goods is happening because of disruptive technologies, not in spite of them.

Larry Downes is a research fellow with the Accenture Institute for High Performance and co-author, with Paul Nunes, of Big Bang Disruption: Strategy in the Age of Devastating Innovation. Paul Nunes is global managing director of the Accenture Institute for High Performance.

In association with Harvard Business Review