Businesses who fail to make connections with their customers in turn fail as businesses. And oddly enough, one of the key connection points companies lose sight of is through the product itself. When a product succeeds, it is produced with the customer in mind; it is made from quality materials, is created authentically and harnesses a unique design. If businesses can be inspired to return their focus to the products they produce, they give themselves an opportunity to get ahead of the game. So, where do we look? Who creates products that capture these authentic qualities?

No one focuses on the product in a deeper way than the craftsman.

What makes craftsmanship remarkable? It is a notably old way of doing things, and it’s an incredibly slow way of doing things. Let’s be honest, using our hands and expending significant physical energy on a single product is downright archaic. This is why industry exists; it saves us from slaving over the loom or the flames of a hearth. But a product produced by a true craftsman is valued for its superior quality, authentic origins, and unique design. In today’s world, most of our products are produced in massive factories, assembled by a large work force and utilize highly complex processes. As a result, many consumers feel that they lose a connection to the products they buy.

It’s this disconnected mass-manufacturing process has left the door wide open for a new class of entrepreneurs. What can we learn from these craftsmen of the 21st century? As it turns out, quite a bit.

Take Industry City Distillery. Producing high quality sugar beet vodka, this Brooklyn business borrows from the traditional practices of distillation and combines them with the advanced technologies of the modern day. The concept, explained on their website, captures their true passion for craftsmanship:

“We are building a distillery from scratch.

Because it’s a challenge, because it’s a chance for us to improve on one of the oldest endeavors of mankind, because it brings together science and art and engineering in a way that makes us giddy, and because the process is really fun.”

To sweeten the pot, the boys at the Distillery handcraft their own letter-pressed labels with a reclaimed 1930s machine. This band of craftsmen has a true connection to their process, and their commitment to the process results in an exceedingly high quality product.

Or take Tanner Goods, producers of quality American leather products. This Portland Oregon business combines techniques of the past with the styles and designs of today. Producing leather wallets, belts, boots and bags, the team at Tanner Goods believes a commitment to the tried and true methods of the past will best inform their products. With a simple quote, they capture the essence of their work: “Hand-crafted goods produced with time tested tools and heritage techniques.” With respect for the simplicity of an ancient practice, and an eye for the style of the present, Tanner Goods defines authenticity.

Lastly, consider Joel Bukiewicz. Also from New York, Joel is the owner of Cut Brooklyn, where he makes kitchen knives for home and professional cooks. Impressively, Joel produces his high quality knives completely by hand. In a film produced by The Bureau of Common Goods, Joel explains what makes his knives unique. “The difference between my knife that spends 15 hours in my hands all the way through the process, and a knife that gets made by 10 different robots over a 15 minute period is all really in the details.” These details are what make Cut Brooklyn a successful business. Joel dedicates himself to a product he believes in, and as a result his knives are truly unique. According to Joel, “There’s like five lines to any kitchen knife, and if you don’t get them just right it’s gonna be a piece of sh*t.” Designing those well crafted lines means everything.

It is clear that more and more, the human element in products – the human touch and feel – is becoming important to consumers and entrepreneurs alike. Indeed, our marketplace is becoming cluttered by highly complex, poorly designed products, the functions of which are trumped by fashion. The true craftsman never dabbles in planned obsolescence. True craftsmen provide tools and services meant to last, and design that maintains its relevance over time.

So what’s the takeaway? What lessons can be learned for businesses whose products or services may fall outside the realm of craft? We must remember to slow down. We must take the time to value skillful design and precision processes. We must remember the past and the lessons we’ve learned from our most basic traditions. The traditions of simplicity, function and quality. The tradition of patience. The tradition of dedication. Too often, businesses chase modernity and quick answers, losing sight of what lies at their core. We must not convince ourselves that victory comes from everything new and everything now. Instead, let’s acquire a considered pace. Let’s combine equal parts then and now. Let’s harness the craftsman’s mentality. We must take a hard look at ourselves. Have we strayed too far from what’s made us great?

When we return our focus to the fundamentals – the products we create –we will naturally produce for quality, design for continued relevance, and tap into your authenticity. As the 21st century craftsmen are showing us, these qualities build a true connection with the customer. As a result, businesses occupy a more lively space in the customer’s mind, inspiring loyalty and excitement they will be happy to share.

Let’s get back to basics.

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  1. Great stuff in here. I especially like the differentiators of authentic origins and unique design. These things are more and more missing in the world of mass production and (I’d imagine) are therefore more and more attractive to folks who are trying to live life “fully alive” – appreciators of the stuff that makes life worth living. Annie Dillard called this “being fully present” – others just call it craftmanship. Either way, thanks for bringing this conversation into the business sphere.

  2. Great post Josh! A point you made that really resonates is: “It is clear that more and more, the human element in products – the human touch and feel – is becoming important to consumers and entrepreneurs alike. Indeed, our marketplace is becoming cluttered by highly complex, poorly designed products, the functions of which are trumped by fashion.” So true, and a good takeaway from this!

  3. I remember your early drafts of this one – this turned out great! I love what you wrote about traditions in your conclusion. I think there’s something there around what makes a tradition so valuable: beyond simplicity and quality, a tradition is about the the repetition through time with the intent of carrying it on and passing it (a story, a practice, a celebration, a custom) along from one generation to the next. Traditions to me are such a powerful thing because you don’t have to question its authenticity or its worthwhileness – it’s the ultimate in “tried and true.” Would love to chat more with you (next week in Richmond?) on how companies can approach tradition in fresh innovative ways.

    1. Absolutely! Its funny, the use of the words traditions just felt right
      because it captured the sort of “old world” approach many craftsman
      take. However, you take this idea a step further with the idea that it
      comes with an assumed authenticity. Brilliant! I think for companies its
      about capturing their traditions in the first place, then approaching
      them in innovative ways. Often if a company can simply connect with what
      makes them who they are, the traditions become immediately apparent.
      Lets chat soon!