My brother is a craftsman builder who makes his living building things of beauty for well-heeled individuals, many of whom live overseas and entrust the creation of their Antipodean bolt hole to him. He's entirely self-taught and adheres to the artisanal, craftsman approach towards the building art. He still uses an old-school drafting table and often shows incredulity at the millennials employed in architecture offices who manipulate digital models of buildings with one hand while perfecting latte art with the other.
I've always heckled my brother for his aversion to joining the digital revolution and been guilty of waving my arms in the air as I vehemently point out that technology would make his life easier, reduce manual labour and enable him to sit at cafes enjoying endless flat whites. He's quite attached to his drafting table and doesn't drink coffee and hence my earnest suggestions haven't proven fruitful.
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I've been thinking about that "making life easier" thing in the context of Cactus Outdoor.
Cactus, our 28-years-young workwear and outdoor equipment brand is our industry's version of my brother - we still make our strong, functional and purposeful gear right here in Christchurch and, while our competitors have moved to outsource almost everything they do, we still pride ourselves on providing an end-to-end service. While it might sound incredible that a brand that, you know, actually makes its own stuff is increasingly a rarity, it truly is.
There are some areas of our business, however, where the digital revolution is necessary. The sales and marketing aspects of commerce are one such area and we have just navigated the torturous path to upgrading our website. We were actually very early to jump on the interwebs, our first website, circa 1995, was hand-coded in Pidgin HTML and was a foreshadowing of the e-commerce future to come.
Since then, we've had to embrace the technological future with cloud-based accounting systems, similarly meteorological point of sale and our aforementioned e-commerce site. Which is where our sorry tale of woe starts.
The other morning I was chatting to our finance director, who was anxiously thinking about the entire day she'd have to spend every week reconciling our transactions. You see, it seems our Shopify doesn't like our Xero, or our RetailExpress has perturbations with our inventory. Or our Customer Relationship Management System doesn't like our office productivity solution. Or something like that.
Either way, the net result is that the not-insignificant sum we spend every month on these varied tools needs to be augmented either with significant amounts of manual labour or, alternatively, with the purchase of yet another software product, this time a newfangled cloud-integration tool.
Now, I have no problem with people seeing a gap in the market and building a tool to fill that gap, and I'm appreciative of the fact that my mate Ashley from A2X has a product that, it would seem, solves part of our problem. My beef is more with the technology vendors who have sold us on the idea that these cloud tools will, magically, solve all our problems.
All these aforementioned tools are awesome - I've been a vocal proponent of the cloud since it was little more than a few spots of water vapour. The fact is that technological democratisation is a good thing and allows people to move faster and smaller organisations to look more like bigger ones. And as my buddy Rod Drury, co-founder of Xero says: "It's not the big that eat the small, it's the fast that eat the slow."
But therein lies the problem - moving fast shouldn't mean small businesses need to keep investing in a new tool every five minutes, it shouldn't mean that they suddenly need to become software engineers and it certainly shouldn't mean that their monthly spend for software suddenly grows exponentially. Technology, remember, is just meant to work.
And that's the big elephant in the room with all these solutions: buy one small piece of software, and you're on this inexorable path to software dependency. Cloud solutions are the technology industry's version of crustal meth - one try and you're hooked and there's no end to what you'll do to find the next hit that delivers the Nirvana you're looking for.
I'm not sure what the answer is, the days of sales orders being taken with pencil and paper and customer relationship management meaning that we actually genuinely knew all of our customers and what they like are seemingly over. What I do know is that people peddling solutions need to be a bit more honest about what they deliver to their customers and what that initial small spend might end up meaning.
And while it may be way less portable than a laptop loaded with the latest drafting software, I reckon my bro is onto something. His old drafting desk might be the height of manual work, but there's a distinct pleasure to be gained from using something physical and reliable.