Are You Part of the New Artisan Economy? I Bet You Are.

Future of Small Business - Short SnapshotWelcome to the artisan economy of the 21st century. Chances are, you’re part of it.

Don’t let the word “artisan” fool you. If you’re picturing bakers in white aprons kneading loaves of whole-grain bread, or someone hand-crafting candles — that’s not necessarily what I mean.

Why You Could be a 21st Century Artisan

The 21st century artisan is a Web designer, or an author, or a manufacturer of a small but exclusive line of luxury items, or a consultant in a niche speciality, or an entrepreneurial-minded attorney who starts selling information products, or an online retailer, or a software developer, or … the list goes on.

Oh, and yes, it could also include the artisan baker or the candlestick maker.  All of the above are the “artisans” of the new economy.

The third installment of the Future of Small Business Report is out. This report outlines the growth of artisan businesses:

The next ten years will see a re-emergence of artisans as an economic force.

Like their medieval predecessors in pre-industrial Europe and Asia, these next-generation artisans will ply their trade outside the walls of big business, making a living with their craftsmanship and knowledge. But there also will be marked differences. In many cases, brains will replace brawn; software and technology will replace hard labor and raw materials, like iron. Yet in many respects, the result will be the same as it was centuries ago: artisans will craft not only their goods, but shape the economy with an effect reaching far beyond their neighborhoods, even their nations. * * *

The coming decade will see continuing economic transformation and the emergence of a new artisan economy. Many of the new artisans will be small and personal businesses — merchant-craftsmen and women producing one of a kind or limited runs of specialty goods for an increasingly large pool of customers seeking unique, customized, or niche products. These businesses will attract and retain craftspeople, artists, and engineers looking for the opportunity to build and create new products and markets.

The Report goes on to make some predictions about the future of small business, including:


  • Large businesses will tap smaller businesses as a source of innovation
  • Lightweight technologies such as online software, allow small businesses to manage growth with less time, money and technical skills
  • The family-room factory emerges, as advances in production technologies allow entrepreneurs to develop a wave of innovative products
  • Almost half of small businesses will be involved in global commerce in 10 years
  • Large corporations recognize small businesses not only as customers, but as suppliers and partners
  • Immigrants who bring foreign market knowledge and unique cultural perspectives will be better equipped to identify and customize products for niche markets

What it Means to You

My thought is this: if you don’t see potential new opportunities from thinking about the trends in this Report, you aren’t thinking hard enough.

So let your mind loose. Free yourself of old ideas that may be holding you back. Or what you think may be society’s perceptions.

Sometimes I know it can feel as if your business is at the mercy of larger forces and you’re not in control. We all tend to have those feelings. But focus on the many positive trends you are living amidst. You may discover you have more control over your destiny than you think, and you can prosper.

Remember, the space between your two ears is your biggest asset as a business owner.

Consider these six examples:

1) Are there ways you can market to or through large corporations — corporations that may need the innovative products and specialized knowledge of a small nimble company like yours? Example: Procter and Gamble is licensing new products such as the Swifter from small innovative companies. Other companies are actively seeking out small businesses as suppliers (think of corporate diversity initiatives).

2) Can you automate more of your business processes, put them online and thus reach out to a national, even global market? Example: one data backup service used to have to visit business customers in person to configure their servers to do backups, effectively limiting their geographic market to New York City. Once they figured out how to handle that function 100% online the potential market they could reach became global — overnight.

3) If you have an idea for a new consumer product, are you familiar with today’s low-cost, small-footprint production equipment? Example: One company has set up a luxury pet-collar manufacturing business, handling the production process, from manufacturing to shipping, all from their basement. Some day they may graduate to a dedicated production facility or outsource portions of the process, but for right now they are happy producing pet collars in their basement.

4) As a consultant or professional, are you taking full advantage of today’s in-house printing capabilities, that allow you to print your own marketing materials, presentations, reports and other documents? Or today’s content management systems that enable you to publish online easily and inexpensively? Example: one attorney is diversifying revenue streams (and getting away from the billable hour) by creating information products and selling them online. The creation of those products is handled entirely in house, with the aid of a virtual assistant.

5) As an author, are you aware of print-on-demand capabilities, that allow you to write a book and print small runs — literally a few books at a time? Enabling you to reach a small niche audience without being turned down by big publishers, or worse, having to spend BIG money to print thousands of books which you then have to store until they are sold?

6) If you are an immigrant or have immigrants working in your business, can you draw on that cultural knowledge and contacts in the former country to identify new products or services? Example: One company with connections in Asia now has a business that helps foreign businesses establish a presence in the United States.

These examples are just the beginning of what these trends can mean for you and your business. Study the trends, think about what they mean, and open yourself to possibilities. You just may trigger new opportunities.

You’ll find a lot of information in the Future of Small Business Report. The Report is based on research underwritten by Intuit and authored by the Institute for the Future. I participated on an expert panel that gave input for developing the report. The report itself is long, so if you’re pressed for time there is a one-pager PDF that’s a quick read.

Steve King, who authored the report for the Institute of the Future (and did a beautiful job I might add), often comes over here and participates in the conversation. We’ll see if we can get him to come over and offer a few other practical ways to use the trends in this report in your business.

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Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.

21 Reactions
  1. Your description: “Like their medieval predecessors in pre-industrial Europe and Asia” presents a foreshortening of European history – by about 300 years. The Medieval period ended in the 16th Century, the Industrial Age began in the late 18th.

    Between these two periods, as the feudal walls (of big business – as you describe them), slowly came tumbling down – there were artisans aplenty supplying the maritime industry and later, the Agricultural Revolution.

  2. Hi Steve O’Malley,

    That was a quote from the Future of Small Business Report. Yes, they did cram an awful lot of history into a single sentence, didn’t they? 🙂

    But of course, the Report is not about history per se. The report just uses history to illustrate a main point, which is: business organization patterns of the future will be more akin to a time before the Industrial Revolution, when businesses operated like artisans.


  3. Shannon Walker-Lembke

    Thinking of yourself as a modern day artisan and expanding the perception of artisan to include skills and products outside the scope of baker and candlestick maker offers today’s entrepreneurs a mindset to help them succeed. I’ve always struggled with the picking a niche issue. But as marketing venues and purchasing patterns of both businesses and consumer evolve, I’ve seen that working in a niche doesn’t really limit income potential – particularly when you build your business to take full advantage of these changes.

    So, yes, I’m an artisan. I’m working to build a business that uses the tools available today and delivers customers and clients products and services in a way that takes advantage of the opportunities the tools offer. I’m specializing more and more without sacrificing revenue.

    What a great time to be an entrepreneur!

  4. Interesting food for thought. I’m an artisan too. Funny thing is, I am the candle stick maker!

  5. Anita,

    Interesting thoughts. I will start to study the one page PDF and then dig into the report… 🙂

  6. Anita,

    I guess I never thought about it as Artisans of the 21st century.

    Perhaps now I should tell people that I work with Artisans who struggle to attract more clients = )

  7. If an artisan is a skilled manual labourer then there have always been artisans. We didn’t stop needing them at any point Anita, (as the opening paragraphs suggest). The word just fell out of recent use. There has also always been a service industry – and that too will continue. But the service industry has not in the past as far as I know, dared to refer to itself as ‘Artisan’.

    It’s a good solid word ‘artisan’ and I can see why it is a tempting term to use for self-employed homeworking webmasters and the like, but such use is trendy and won’t stand the test of time. Better to find a new word that grounds the new way of working in a time of its own. It’s hard to think of one though.

  8. Anita: Thanks for the great summary post on our report. I really like the “What it Means to You” section of your post and your 6 examples. It really puts things in context.

    Steve: You are right about the history. We had several more paragraphs linking the medievial period to the pre-industrial period, but they were cut in the peer review process. One of our peer reviewers summed up the paragraphs by writing “blah, blah, blah – isn’t this report supposed to be about the future?”.


  9. Oh, I see your point now, Steve O’Malley. Sorry, I didn’t quite catch it the first time around.

    There’s something about the word “artisan” that conveys the emotional choice of working lovingly at what you do, and not wanting to substitute mass production in its place.

    I think it is because “artisan” incorporates the word “art” as part of it. It’s as if you think of your work as art, with a lot of pride in it, and not just commerce.

    You’re right, it would be a big challenge to find another word that could substitute.

    Maybe we’ll ask other readers: do you think of your business as being a kind of artisan business? Or is there a better description?

  10. I seemed to have made a mistake and came through as anonoymous on my last post. Sorry about that.


    It is tough to describe the shifts that are happening, so we look for words that we think will convey the meaning. We had an active debate about “artisan”, but in the end the style of work we were observing kept bringing us back to it.

    We also got lots of “oh, now I get it” when we used artisan in our trend descriptions. In particular, the term “knowledge artisan” seemed to communicate our message quite well.

    Steve King

  11. Amanda:

    Looked at your site and you are a great example of what we are trying to describe in our report – you have your own web presence, use Etsy, take credit cards and it looks like you resell electric burners made by others. You also really are a candle stick maker – merging both the traditional definition of artisan with our new use of the term.

    I’d really like to hear more about your business and how you set it up. How hard was it to go online? If you are sourcing the electric burners, how did you do this? How is Etsy working versus your own website? Anything else we should know about your business?



  12. Steve,

    Thank you for your interest. I have to admit that the first few years were tough going. I was not very web savy and had to learn as I go. So needless to say, my site looks better now then when I first started. I definitely sell the majority of products from my website. I just use places like Etsy and Ebay for added exposure. I also do some large local craft fairs a few times a year. As for the burners, I buy those in bulk at wholesale prices from my suppliers. I enjoy the creative aspect as well as being able to work from home.

  13. It’s funny that the word artisan is so descriptive of the work of so many small businesses, today. I know that the work we do at WME Books, using a POD model, is art. From the covers of our books, to the layout of the inside pages, to the image placement and the custom back covers — all the way to helping authors create blogs to market their work, it’s all art. We think of it as words and pictures together. As book as business card. We know the look, and feel, the touch of the product, the smell of it…are as important as the words inside.

    At WME we look at the art – of bringing people together using words and pictures. It’s far more than just publishing.

  14. Hi the word Artisan fits my business very well! iv never been very acadenic & i cant spell very well but i can make things! I tort myself how to paint & make jewellery & have now started my own business in the Artisan feiled. I do unique originals & limited editions, in art & jewellery. im still lerning about the computer & web side of my business but im not doing to bad!

  15. Steve King,

    Could you please tell me what you are doing at Small Business Labs? In a way I am an “artisan,” fighting for a Second Renaissance in business and culture.

    All the Best,

    Martin Lindeskog – America in Spirit.
    Gothenburg, Sweden.

  16. Martin: Small Business Labs is a “mom & pop” research business focused on identifying, better understanding, and forecasting the trends that are impacting small business formation and operation. My wife and I are the employees, we work from home, and our kids even pitch in from time to time.

    We partner with other firms in our work. In case of the Future of Small Business report series, we partnered with Intuit and the Institute for the Future. We also work with experts on small business. Anita, for example, participated in an expert panel on this topic early in our research process.

    We’re working on several things right now in addition to our broader small business trend work: better understanding the demographic make-up of personal businesses; the outsourcing of admin, IT and other services and small business; Gen Y and small business; and continued work on how small businesses and big corporations are interacting.

    We like to think of ourselves as knowledge artisans.


  17. I’ve been waiting on this report. The work has been so well done, it’s changed the theory by which my CPA consulting practice operates.

    Steve, if you have a need of additional resources on the future of small business, I would love to offer insight I see in my own clients (see our explanation of Thriveal Theory at

    Anita, thanks for letting the small business world know about this.

    Thanks, Jason M. Blumer

  18. Steve: Thanks for your answer. The concept “knowledge artisans” has a nice ring to it! 🙂

  19. Hi Anita
    I was rereading this post from 2008 and remembered a really cool entrepreneur incubator in Port Angeles, Washington (a hip spot on the north coast) that invested in a device that can print in 3D. So let’s say you’ve invented a new dog collar with some special electronic thing and you need a realistic mockup of it — you could have them “print” it and out would come a hard copy, no pun intended, that you could handle and touch that would look like your real collar (minus color and dog)… That sort of innovative approach to fast prototyping seemed in the range of small footprint manufacturing to me.

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