Today we are in the throes of a slow return to a world of more personal connection between companies and their customers. Web 2.0 is allowing it, and for some people perhaps it is a new concept, but in fact it dates back to the beginning of commerce, to individual barter or the local market and the personal connection between those selling or buying the goods. For a long time we have engineered and marketed and grown our way out of this type of connection, and it is still quite startling when you see it happen in a genuine way. As the Cluetrain Manifesto preciently argued, "markets are conversations." Perhaps an "old fashioned" approach to business might be better suited to the future than a more contemporary one.
Case in point: Rivendell Bicycles.
Rivendell is not your typical bike company. They make bicycles only out of steel rather than more new-fangled carbon fiber or titanium. They advocate wool clothing rather than polypropylene. They argue for an upright position on the bicycle for comfort and safety rather than the more fashionable racer crouch. And they stay in touch with their customers in an unusually personal way through their catalog and newsletter, and come across with a distinctive, opinionated personality.
In a day and age over-run with corporate spin, cynicism and sound-alike PR departments, Rivendell speaks with authenticity. Though undoubtedly a niche player - they make fewer bikes in a year than China Bicycle probably makes in 30 minutes - they have an unusually strong following in large part because of how strongly and consistently they communicate their personality and values. Does it remind you of a certain computer company? Like Apple they place a premium on the experience of using their products, rather than the technical aspects, and through their various communications reinforce all the different ingredients that contribute to that experience. They don't see their bicycles as isolated jewels (though they are exquisitely crafted), but as part of a larger system of clothing, bags, accessories and set-up that creates the desired riding experience.
Rivendell is a small company, founded by Grant Peterson, who used to design bikes for Bridgestone back in their hey-day of the 1980's. He struck out on his own and has crafted a company that reflects his personality and view on the world. His voice is carried through in every touchpoint with the company, from the website to their printed items. (And he manages to pull it off without sounding big-headed - if anything he is self-deprecating in tone.)
Their latest catalog, #19, has an introduction to their firm, which gives a nice sense of who they are. Here are some excerpts:
We're an eleven-person, twelve-and-ahalf year old bike company specializing in really good, but untrendy bicycles and gear.
Our big ticket items are bicycle frames, and we make only lugged steel ones. The only saddles we sell are leather. We sell lots of wooly clothing, and go to great lengths to get all wool, no blends.
Our typical customers are between 40 and 65, athletic, usually successful or good at something in their life, and they're not searching for themselves or trying to fit in somewhere. They're smart, love to ride bikes, usually own modern bikes and gear, and come to us when they realize it's not working out and they think maybe another approach will work.
We like bike parts and things that make your bike more useful and comfortable and fun. We don't cater to racers, not even a little.
Our selection is small, but everything is good. We prefer plain to fancy, simple to complicated, natural to synthetic, originals to copies, and things made by users to things made by workers who are emotionally unattached to the goods.
Our prices are fine. I know a diligent recluse with a computer can knuckle down for a few hours on the internet and find a lower price on some of our more generic items, but our prices are fair and on the low side, given the quality.
[There's] a difference between tech and craft. Tech is buzzwords, hype, materials, features, high profit margins and widespread appeal. Craft is less showy and suffers on the pop charts for it, but ultimately is more satisfying to own and use.
I feel lucky and nervous all the time. We have too many balls in the air, and I'm behind on my Thank You notes. In our day-to-day business, the simple things are hard, but the complicated things are simpler than they seem. I'm at the point in my life where I'm starting to see our big picture here from the outside, not the inside. What's our role, if any? Are we grinding through life until retirement, or is their purpose and value in what we do?
There are many lessons here for much larger companies about how to communicate what you do, why and how you do it, and who you see as your customers.