Trevor Stauffer

Five Lessons From the Growing Artisan Economy

We hear a lot about the artisan economy. It’s a movement towards personalized, hand-made, small-scale production that has been gaining lots of momentum in the US. So much momentum, in fact, that artisans are taking a measurable chip out of mid-sized manufacturers. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, if the artisan economy were a country, it would have the fourth largest economy in the world. While larger sized businesses obviously cannot compete with some aspects of the artisan economy, they can certainly reflect on some of the principles that are propelling artisan growth and apply them to their own organizations.


One of the most obvious ways that artisans are prospering is by catering to individual customers or niche markets. Cigarettes at the gas station not quite fulfilling your nicotine needs? There’s an artisan out there crafting organic, super-premium cigarettes. And what about that boring big-box wallet? Why not try one hand-stitched from lustrous alligator leather? These sort of niche markets simply would not have been viable before the internet, but now online communities and forums thrive for just about every hobby, topic, and lifestyle conceivable. Unlike big brands, who often target the widest audience possible, artisans are cashing in on our desire for individuality.

The growing contrast between bigger and bigger corporations and more and more artisans has been called barbell economics (pg. 5). A few big organizations dominate one end of the spectrum, often by offering low price and high availability, mid-sized companies disappear, and small businesses and artisans multiply.

Sourcing small

This contrast between big businesses and artisans often leads to collaboration. Artisans are great at innovating, marketing, and customizing, and big organizations enlist their help. Artisans are then able to take advantage of the scale, visibility, and existing infrastructure of big businesses. As Intuit predicts on page ten of their report on the artisan economy, “David and Goliath will work together.” Amazon Launchpad, which offers artisans and startups an enormous platform, is one example of such a partnership, while other companies, like Ten Thousand Villages, source fair-trade wares from artisans in the developing world.

Old barriers to entry are crumbling

Because artisans are increasingly able to take advantage of technological resources, they are increasingly able to compete with bigger organizations. Where only ten years ago there were major cost and infrastructure blockades, today, the gates are opened wide for incoming artisans and startups. Technology has reduced costs in a variety of ways, from plug-and-play platforms like Etsy and Fiverr, to increased efficiency through machine learning, to easier, more seamless communication with customers. Designing a sleek website no longer takes a degree. Smartphone cameras outperform the priciest options from a few decades ago, and social media has made effective advertising simpler than ever.


Part of what makes artisans successful in the face of established brands is personal flair and creative thinking. They connect with consumers at a personal level, which younger generations find increasingly important. Sure, many big brands try to create narrative-based marketing campaigns, but they often fall flat. Because small-scale operations can be more approachable, their stories often seem more genuine. Most successful artisans do a fantastic job of using social media to tell authentic stories. But the power of personality isn’t confined to the web: Millennials, contrary to popular belief, still crave human connection in the buying process. They want to shake hands with the farmer who grew their kale, or have a pint with the brewer of their favorite craft beer.


Scroll through articles written by artisans about their job, and you will find that one of most common motivations is happiness, or sense of purpose. One of the major drivers of the artisan economy has been the freedom artisans experience when they drop their job in “the grind” and set out on their own: mastering a new trade, learning business skills, and owning their work. Artisans are rarely nailed down to one task, but instead blend creative thinking, skilled labor, technical savvy, and high-stakes management decisions into a mixed-up workday that is anything but boring. There’s also the satisfaction of taking an idea from concept to final product.

These five tactics of the artisan economy are not exclusive. Sure, they’re a natural fit for smaller startups, but wouldn’t it be smart for big businesses to learn from these strategies? What would it take for a big business to offer workers the excitement and fulfillment of an artisan trade? What about better ways to humanize their business model and connect with conscious consumers? Or even boost their offerings by sourcing artisan products? Not everyone can be an artisan, but it might not hurt to think like one sometimes.


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