Speaker | Entrepreneur | Author

Sam Davidson's blog

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One of a kind doesn't scale - or does it?

Amidst the Black Friday deals of last week and the Cyber Monday hot bargains of today was tucked Small Business Saturday. And if you need something to carry you through tomorrow, check out Giving Tuesday. (Anyone have an idea for Wednesday that doesn't involve shoes in odd places?)

What Saturday's event was designed to elevate was the idea of the local merchant. And increasingly, the local merchant is actually the local artisan, making something by hand, whether it's putting paint on a canvas or creating what is probably the most beautiful knife in the world.

Of course, this dedication to craftsmanship (or craftswomanship) is becoming more and more mainstream. It's popularity is rising to the point where Portlandia - one of the funniest shows on TV - has spoofed this idea. Take a look.

The hitch always has been, however, that if you everything is handmade, then many of the modern conveniences of today disappear. The benefit of the too-big-to-fail corporation is primarily one of scale so that more stuff can be sold to more people for lower prices. Plus, our furniture can match our friends' furniture so when we go visit we don't have to feel like we even left home.

This is the casualty that scale provides, too. Cheap crap also results in uniformity. But, when we get sick of that, we can find the hand-crafted beer, table, or rug so that we can enjoy owning that which is truly unique.

So if you were going to start your own business today, which path do you choose? Do you build something that can scale and have the benefit of size? Or do you focus on the local and artisan and only crank out what you're able in the hopes that demand will remain steady so you can have steady work for a long while?

Many entrepreneurs choose the promise of scale over the potential of one-of-a-kind. Unique doesn't scale, we're told.

Wrong. May we entrepreneurs stop believing this myth.

One-of-a-kind does scale. Unique can hit it big. The artist can become the tycoon. But only if a commitment to quality and customer remains a priority.

I think where scale gets a bad rap is when the bottom line becomes the chief driver in any interaction, whether it's the selection of ingredients or the time spent treating a customer with respect and delight. Some large companies still offer unique moments despite their growth. Take a look at Zappos, Marriott, Best Made, or Southwest.

My family eats our Thanksgiving meal at Puckett's, which has now expanded to multiple locations. Thankfully, the joint hasn't become a people factory yet, clogging bodies into a food-service machine that strips them of concern or emotion. Case in point: my daughter left her sunglasses at our table. We were getting into the car - around the corner and far away - when the host ran up to us and gave us our cheap plastic sunglasses. That's an example of care that can still happen despite scale. 

Go to a U2 concert, check out a major art gallery, read a book that's sold a million copies. I bet you still enjoy these experiences even though the size or scope is less 1890's and more 21st century. Spreadsheets and supply chains can exist peacefully alongside human interaction and beautiful art.

Don't be fooled into thinking it's scale or skill. You can have your handmade cake and eat it, too. Just remain committed to the human part of what you do and you can grow as big and rich as you want. In fact, the only way to grow big is to make sure you are able to help people be who they want to be.

And in that case, I say the more the merrier.