Farm to keyboard: why software is the next “craft” industry

Artisanal–making a specific thing, for a specific customer.
Artisanal–making a specific thing, for a specific customer.
Image: Reuters/Thomas Mukoya
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Craft products are all around us. They’ve never been more popular or accessible. People have a lot of choices when they buy, and craft products carry with them special qualities that inspire and delight.

You know these companies—their marketing is peppered with phrases like “farm to table,” “fair trade” and “handmade.” No detail is overlooked, expense spared or compromise considered in the making of their products. Quality, sustainability and an almost irrational dedication to raising the bar are what make craft products special.

Beer, furniture, coffee, watches, clothing, and even toast have joined the craft movement. In some cases, a small, cult-like following can grow into a brand adored by millions around the world. Brands like TOMS, Stumptown, Patagonia and Samuel Adams have built world-renowned businesses almost by accident, thanks to their sincere and continued dedication to craftsmanship.

What about software?

Software, as an industry, seems fundamentally opposed to craft. Growth, market share, and defensibility have been deemed more important than quality. But as people have access to more choices and software becomes easier to make and maintain, craft software is poised to make its mark.

My company, Help Scout, like many others, is making a bet on craft software; on quality over bloat, niche over dominant, and care over scale. People around the world want to use delightful software and our mission is to give it to them.

We know it’s possible to build a successful company around craft software, because several companies are already doing it. They often exist in crowded markets, but have a loyal and dedicated following of customers. What makes craft software different from any other software? We’ve identified 10 values that set a craft software company apart from the others:

1. Delight in the process

Make software to create something of value that people love, not to optimize for a high-priced exit. Software is never finished or perfect, so it’s imperative to find joy in the process of improving the product, learning from customers and building a brand that people can trust.

2. Use only the best ingredients

For most makers, the best ingredients are raw materials. In software, the ingredients are people. Quality is the result of smart people being empowered by the business to do their best work.

3. Invest in the “unmeasurables”

As software makers, it’s tempting to drive all decisions with data, but data-driven approaches don’t directly account for the quality of your brand, your content or your products. Although these factors can’t be easily measured, they are a critical ingredient of craft software.

4. Think of profit as a byproduct

Craftsmen are driven by quality; profit is merely a byproduct of a job well done. Profit is one measure of a successful business, but it’s no longer a craft when it’s the most important measure.

5. Be stubborn about values

Your values will be put to the test daily. Making compromises on quality, people or brand for the sake of growth can be a slippery slope. While all other aspects of a business should evolve and improve as quickly as possible, values should be the one constant.

6. Have an opinion

Great craft brands have loyal customers because they stand for common values. By expressing who you are, what you believe in and sticking to it, you can build an audience that is fiercely loyal to your products.

7. Delay gratification

It always takes less time and fewer resources to make something of a lower quality. Making software is a daily, often excruciating exercise in delayed gratification. Craft software is made by people that put the time into doing things well.

8. Choose your customers

Craft products are typically made for a small group of people that appreciate the time, skill and effort that goes into the product; otherwise the cost wouldn’t be justified. Craft software isn’t for everyone, so know your ideal customers and only make things they will be wildly happy about.

9. Make better, not more

While software doesn’t have the inventory challenges of a typical craft industry, it’s still tempting to make more product over better product. But the more you say yes to features, the more elusive quality will be.

10. Grow in a sustainable way

Since profit is a byproduct of your real mission as a company, grow only as fast as you can maintain the quality and integrity of your product. Growth that strengthens the foundation of the business and forges a path for future sustainability is always a great thing.

While no company is perfect at applying craft principles, like-minded software companies such as Basecamp, Harvest and Litmus share the same aspirational intention to maintain these core values as they grow and change.

Whether a company has been around for 20 years, two years, or is still in the conceptual stages, building a craft product is a way to make your mark in software today.