Transaction costs

We’ve had a lot of economics lately and I had hoped to do a history post for today, but that one hasn’t panned out (yet). Instead, today I thought we could talk about transaction costs: the barriers in the market that get in the way of trade. I think these are a powerful force in our marketplace: the key driver of the revival in FPs, the reason we have an online community, and even the success of Goulet Pens. It is a topic that is well worth exploring.

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Taxonomy Update

Around six months ago, I published a series called Taxonomy in which I tried to map out the competitive landscape for FPs and identify which brands were offering users the most value for money. Some things have changed in the meantime and today, we’ll update the list and have a look at who is doing what in the market.

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Going Premium

Every now and then, I’ll see a conversation online about a successful brand or retailer where a commenter will say something about how excited they are to see when the firm goes premium: offering more expensive products, like gold-nibbed or high-end pens. It’s almost always expressed as an inevitability, like a star athlete moving up to the big leagues, and yet it almost never happens in reality. In fact, the opposite seems to occur more frequently: brands that were once premium like Parker and Waterman barely compete in the upmarket space anymore. In today’s post, I thought it would be interesting to explore why firms aren’t always so eager to make the move upmarket, and look at Goulet Pens and Twsbi as two case studies.

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The Role of Social Media

Given the extent to which the FP market has shifted online, it’s somewhat surprising that so few brands have developed strategies for the digital environment. It’s obvious that the online market will only grow in importance in the future but it appears most brands are only mildly interested in developing their presence. In today’s post, we’ll talk about the role that social media plays and look at the brands that are doing well – and not so well – at harnessing it.

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Please note the postscript at the end of this post, which addresses recent events in our community and FPGeeks.  

This blog has a big focus on strategy, which I obviously believe is important for any pursuit (particularly in commerce) but I haven’t talked as much about leadership, which is equally important and often overlooked. People talk about leadership – people believe themselves to be leaders – but I think we all know it’s much scarcer than is claimed. I am sure each of you reading this has had more experience of bad bosses than you have of good leaders. So today, I’m going to focus on the attributes of leadership and how it differs from management.

First and foremost, leadership is about having a vision: an authentic sense of where things are now, a vision of where a team or organisation could be, and a clear path for how to move from the current state to the future one. A vision is not marginal improvement on a few metrics; instead it is something that is both transformative and challenging. It is the very opposite of management, the opposite of business as usual. I have never worked with a company or team that could justifiably be managed rather than led; none have been at a state where there could be no more goals for them to pursue or opportunities to be exploited. But plenty of managers see their mission as to keep things ticking along and not to change too much. I find that depressing.

Second, leadership is about engagement. While a manager will usually focus on a single audience – their boss (or whoever sets their bonus) – and only engage with other audiences to the extent that it affects their primary, a leader will engage with multiple audiences: bosses, yes, but also customers, employees, and the broader community. A leader understands that genuine engagement with these audiences is a source of strength, not weakness; it’s not a one-directional broadcast where a manager announces a plan and expects compliance, but an opportunity for others to share their ideas and concerns, and for the leader to learn and to understand. Sometimes this is a chance for a leader to share his vision and convince others of its merits; other times, it is a chance for a leader to ask what others need and how they can help. Genuine consideration can make an organisation stronger, and Twsbi are a wonderful example of this: their engagement with social media means that customers have the opportunity to influence product design, which saves money (like the pencil case that was panned long before production could take place) and builds up demand for products (like the Eco or Vac Mini).*

Third, a leader empowers his team members. While most managers keep employees in a box – manages their ambitions – a leader understands that the scale of the vision outstrips the resources available, and that others need to be given opportunities to step up and help the team reach their goals. To me, this is something that makes perfect business sense: empowering those already inside the company – those who share the vision, have the relationships, and know the job that needs to be done – is both faster and cheaper than hiring externally and trying to integrate a outsider into a senior role. If you need to hire, promote internally and hire someone external for the junior role. The loyalty and trust gained from the empowered team member far outweigh the cost of training them in particular skill areas. If you understand what your people need – not their financial needs, but their needs as a person – you can find ways to motivate and support staff in much deeper, more meaningful ways.

Finally, a leader understands that they are the servant, not the master. While managers wield authority and force employees to comply with their decisions, leaders devolve authority and use reason to persuade others to buy into the vision. They understand that success demands on persuading team members to commit and pursue a mission just as vigorously as the leader, and that credit is rightly shared amongst the entire team; they equally understand that failure is principally due to the leader: their failure to persuade, to motivate, to execute a vision. Credit is shared amongst the team but stress and blame falls on the leader alone.

So, to me at least, this is leadership and it is a vital part of any business success. I don’t believe most managers are bad or unethical people; more often than not, they are doing their best and are often unsure about how they could be doing better. The problem is really that leadership – genuine, effective leadership – is so scarce in the business world. Many people find themselves yearning for a boss who is hands-off; they have given up on hoping for a leader and just want someone who won’t interfere too much.

I know some of you – perhaps most of you – reading this are in management positions or even run your own businesses, and I want to encourage you to ask yourself three questions:

·      Do you have a vision for your team and do they know what it is?

·      Do you engage with all of your audiences?

·      Do you empower your staff?

If your answer to any of these was yes, ask if that’s how others feel as well. If your answer to any of these was no, ask yourself why not. Ask if you’re happy with the current state of things and if there’s much risk in trying a different approach.

While there are some people in the FP industry who are clearly leaders and their firms obviously benefit from that leadership (such as Brian Goulet and Goulet Pens), there are many companies in the market – particularly some of those in the competitive and uncompetitive categories – that are trapped in a place where there is no apparent strategy and seemingly no leadership to improve those situations. It is my hope that some of the people inside some of those companies start to think about putting together a vision for how things could be better and build up stronger, more innovative, and more competitive companies.



This post was written and scheduled last week, before the FP Geeks event took place. I may (or may not) cover that in a later post but, for now, I wanted to say that I have an enormous amount of respect and appreciation for Dan Smith and the work he's put in to building and curating the FPG website. He is a real asset to our community and I sincerely hope this doesn't mark the end of his involvement with the community.

As for the dispute itself, I don't have any special knowledge about FPG or Eric Schneider and won't be commenting on that. But in reading the above post, you can probably discern which party has acted like a leader and which has acted like a manager, and where my respect lies.