Artisanal longevity, or how to sustain an artisanal business for the long haul

How would you achieve an artisanal longevity measured in centuries or even millennia? I found the answer to this question in an excellent New York Times article on the remarkable phenomenon of centuries-old heritage businesses in Japan. Now you might be asking what does Ichiwa – a 1,200 year old mochi shop in Kyoto – have to do with bespoke tailors in the West? Interestingly enough, quite a bit if you consider the entire category of shops – called “shinise” – to which this mochi shop belongs. 

Shinise are essentially Japan’s foremost heritage businesses. Their longevity is astonishing – “Over 3,100 have been running for at least two centuries. Around 140 have existed for more than 500 years. And at least 19 claim to have been continuously operating since the first millennium.”

Clearly, cultural context is essential in understanding why so many Japanese heritage businesses can operate continuously across multiple generations for hundreds of years. We should acknowledge that cultural values and entrepreneurial incentives may differ considerably from East to West.  

However, I think Western artisans can draw some very relevant lessons that can be applied directly to their own businesses. Common to both Japanese heritage businesses and Western artisans is a recognition and respect paid to an idea such as craft or community that is greater than the specific entrepreneur or artisan in question. 

This becomes the seed stock for a multigenerational craft business. If you accept this premise, then the “No. 1 priority is carrying on. Each generation is like a runner in a relay race. What’s important is passing the baton.”

The article then lays out some key principles for building and maintaining that initial foundation. In short, it describes an operating system for sustainability. 

This breaks down into some very practical rules-of-thumb on a organizational, operational and financial level. All sage advice in my view. 

These are the top takeaways for me: 

  • To endure, have a purpose-driven reason to exist. “To survive for a millennium, a business cannot just chase profits. It has to have a higher purpose.” In other words, an artisanal business should never be satisfied simply by breaking even or generating profit. For most artisans, dedication to their craft provides an even more fundamental purpose.  
  • Make sure you excel in (at least) one thing. “For Ichiwa, that means doing one thing and doing it well — a very Japanese approach to business.” I would add that it often helps to achieve excellence in two related or complementary areas. For example, a tailor who designs and makes both men’s and women’s tailored clothing. 
  • Build a contingency fund of cash reserves to support both points above. This means taking on very little or no debt and relying on extended family members to contribute their time and effort to the enterprise. If you do invest, you spend your capital with unwavering parsimony. For instance, this includes owning your means to production (including the premise or building your business operates in).  

Perhaps the greatest motivation for continuing a heritage business is a highly personal one. You do not want to be known in your extended family as the weakest link who drove a 100 or 1,000 year old business down into the ground. In the end, “we all hate the idea of being the one to let it go.” 

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