The late 70’s and early 80’s was an era of small-scale capitalism. The microcomputer made it possible for a small team – even a single person – to create a product that had real impact. VisiCalc was written by 2 guys, Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston. The classic game Wizardry was also a 2-guy effort, written by Andrew (aka ‘Werdna’) Greenberg and Robert Woodhead. Ever look at the credits for a game today, like Angry Birds? It’s like reading the phonebook.
It Will Be Exhilarating ($4.99 on Kindle), by Dan Provost and Tom Gerhardt (with an intro by Clay Shirky), is about how small-scale is coming back. Dan and Tom are the principals – in fact the only employees of – Studio Neat. Studio Neat’s first product was the Glif, a kind of clip for an iPhone 4/4s that let’s you mount your phone on a tripod. In telling the story of the Glif, and of their other product, the Cosmonaut, Dan and Tom provide a how-to guide to indie capitalism. And what is that, you ask? First some background:
For a long time if you wanted to make a product, you had to be a big company. Sure, you can be a craft-person and make one of a kind artisanal things, but those are more art works than they are products. To do a product you need to have a market, which means advertising, and you need to have production, which means having a factory, and having both of those meant you had to be big.
No more, because of two things. First is the internet and in particular social and sharing services that make it easy for interest groups to form – there’s your market. The second thing is a range of manufacturing advances like 3-D printing – where anyone can create a physical prototype of a designed object – and small-run production – like this, this and this – which make it cost-effective for small, virtual companies to make things. What kind of things, you ask? There’s Yield Picnic, a beach-bag that converts into a blanket; Magnetic bike lights; and the Captain Crepe Pan, “the best CAST IRON PAN for making the world’s BIGGEST AND BEST CREPES.” These are just a few examples of 1,000s of projects on Kickstarter, the leading “crowd funding” site. Most of these are small efforts, in the $10 – 30,000 funding range. Some are much bigger, in the millions.
Kickstarter is the best single example of what indie capitalism means, namely: It’s traditional capitalism where buyers and sellers meet in a market and do business, but its also “independent” in that you’re not dealing with a giant corporation that is constrained to deliver only products that align with some global mega-strategy, but with a small entity whose only business is the thing you want to buy. You think Apple really cares about your individual comments on its products? If you didn’t get the memo, they don’t. Yes, when the whole world calls Apple Maps an epic fail, they care. That’s the extent of their engagement with you. That’s not how it is on a Kickstarter project. The whole idea on Kickstarter is the project owners interact with their backers and that you as a backer have a say in how things will turn out.
Last two background things I’ll mention are Maker Faire and Lifehacker – if these are news to you, they are two of the strongest originating impulses for indie capitalism. Lifehacker is for do-it-yourselfers – like, who want to fix their own smartphone. Maker Faire is more creativity and product oriented, but it shares with LifeHacker the core idea that you, not the “big guys”, can make something useful.
Getting back to the book, the great thing about IWBE is to see a complete end-to-end story. I think lots of folks have heard about the creative part of this kind of work. What about the nuts and bolts of retaining a small-run manufacturer? Should you manufacture offshore? What about packaging? Fulfillment? Dan and Tom have something to say about all that. The numbers they share on their operation are also interesting. Studio Neat’s Frameographer product has sold about 20,000 copies. At $2.99 per user, and with 30% going to Apple, they are not on the billionaire track with this stuff. But that’s not the goal. In their own words:
In “start-up” culture, there are basically two trajectories: become super successful so you can become the next Twitter or Facebook, or aim to get acquired by a larger company. There are very few new start-ups that have the goal of staying intentionally small, building great products that can be sold for a profit, and growing organically.
One of the more fascinating aspects of Indie Capitalism is that there is now a middle ground. Instead of the “go big or go home” approach of most start-ups, it is now feasible to “go small and have complete autonomy over your products and not work crazy, unreasonable hours.” That’s probably a little too long to catch on, but you get the idea.
If this is new to you and you’re interested, It Will Be Exhilarating is a pretty good read – a window into a cool world that all of us as consumers can benefit from. And if you are thinking of trying the indie capitalism thing, I heartily recommend IWBE – for $4.99 you can read about what worked, what didn’t, and get tons of references to help you plan your own personal conquest of the long tail.
Ok, let’s go back in time again. Our destination is not the 1970’s and the dawn of microcomputers, but the 1870’s and the Franco-Prussian War. Napoleon III and his chiefs of staff arrive just as a Prussian artillery barrage commences. Despite the confusion of breaking camp to evade the falling shells, a 24-year old chef decides the assembled leaders will want a meal the following morning. Taking some blown-up railroad ties to create a makeshift frame, the chef impales a large joint of beef on a sword and starts roasting it; taking another sword in hand he guards the beef all night from hungry stragglers attracted by the enticing aroma. At 9 am the following morning, with some supplies obtained from a local farm, he serves the following menu to Napoleon and his officers:
Canned Sardines in Oil; Sausage; Soft-boiled Eggs; Roast Beef, Cooked to Perfection; Potato Salad
- To drink was water from a horse-trough the chef filtered himself, though to finish the diners had coffee and cognac from the Emperor’s personal store. Thus fortified, the Emperor and officers and all the French troops fled the morning barrage from the Prussians.
- The chef was Auguste Escoffier, and this was not the least of his innovations or creative solutions. A Dash Of Genius ($2.99 for Kindle) by Jeremiah Tower is mostly an overview of this great chef’s life and accomplishments, augmented by Tower’s own experiences with Escoffier’s legacy and recipes. Tower is himself a tremendously accomplished chef, one who helped build the world-famous Chez Panisse.
- But this short book is all about Escoffier. As a member of the dining public, owner of all of Julia Child’s books, most of Jacques Pepin’s, and frequent viewer of pretty much any cooking show – unless it features the ever-irritating Gordon Ramsay – I like to think I know a lot about cooking, for an amateur. I of course knew the name Escoffier, but I thought of him as just an example of the broader French tradition and, coming from La Belle Époque, as a representative of an outdated cuisine, marked by heavy sauces and pointlessly complex preparations.
- How wrong I was. Everything we take for granted about fine dining, and restaurant cooking in general, comes from this man. Before Escoffier, dishes were not cooked to order. Restaurants had timed seatings, and then the same dishes – in great variety of course – were served to all diners. Escoffier perfected ordering à la carte, and the kitchen system necessary to quickly fill incoming orders. Before Escoffier, kitchens were organized into separate sections; the conduct and quality of the salads was often different from that of the grill, from that of the pastry, etc. After Escoffier the kitchen was run by a single commander, and all the sections worked together to a single set of standards and on a single menu.
- Before Escoffier, a woman – especially in England – did not dine out, unless she was a demi-mondaine. Escoffier invited the Prince of Wales to bring his wife, Mary of Teck, to dine at the Ritz; after that ladies of better society decided they could all dine with their husbands.
- Finally, perhaps his greatest contribution was a modern vision of professionalism in the food and hospitality trade. Before Escoffier the traditional French kitchen was a brutal place, emphasizing unquestioning obedience to the chef that was often reinforced with blows from spoons, rolling pins or worse. Escoffier’s standards and expectations were high, but he did not use violence to promote them; instead he used training and a refined, insightful and sometime humorous attitude that allowed him to communicate easily both with the lowliest apprentice, as well as with Princes and Dukes – of which Tower cites many examples.
- I think the great virtue of A Dash Of Genius is how much it provides in a small space. I’ve tried to give a flavor of what Tower covers, but the 120-so pages gives much, much more. Rather than listing all that, I’ll just give a recipe:
Cut up a rabbit.
Sauté in hot lard.
Add 6 finely chopped onions. Season with salt and pepper.
Add 1 glass cognac and 1 glass white wine.
Simmer for 20 minutes.
- This recipe became Lapin de Gravellote, as Escoffier first served it on the battlefield of Gravelotte. What could have been simpler? Some time back in the US, I need to make this.
- The wrap-up: A great, short book. I like it. Tony Bourdain likes it. If you care about food, you will too.
A bit of a postscript … Why did I do these two reviews together? What’s the link? Of course, A Dash Of Genius is a type of indie capitalism, the kind of writing we’d never see if it was up to the big publishers. So, there’s that.
But when I read It Will Be Exhilarating, frankly I wasn’t exhilarated. I think indie capitalism is neat and all that, but there’s a flip side to it – one of self-indulgence, a boutique viewpoint that is pointlessly unique, and products that aren’t that great, which only exist because nowadays you can find the 1000 people in all the world who care about your dorky little clip. In a cynical mode, one might re-title IWBE to “It will be mildly useful to a few people, somewhere”.
But reading A Dash Of Genius, I was taken by Escoffier’s passion. His accomplishments were great, but more important was what he surmounted, and what he stood for. Had he been around today I think he might have been an indie capitalist. When opening the Hotel Ritz in Paris and discovering all the dining room chairs and tables were 1 inch too high, Escoffier sent them back to the cabinet maker to have the inch removed, all 3 hours before opening time. I can’t picture this man working for a mega-corp. And that made me think Dan and Tom of Studio Neat must be taken by the same thing – they have their standard, and that’s what they want to build to.
Here’s the link: Personal vision and passion in what you do – things so hard to get, but with unmatched rewards, whether you’re cooking for royalty or making something for a 1,000 true fans.
Thanks for reading.