January 1, 2012
From Maker to Market
An innovative London-based business breaks down the barriers to design entrepreneurship.
Last June, the designer Jody Milton established his studio, Milton & Mees, in London, to create furniture that reflected his cabinetmaking skills, blending craft and industry. Outline, his seating collection, had been prototyped, but he needed help with supply, packaging, and distribution. “I wanted to scale up the size of my business only when it was required,” Milton says. “I didn’t want the headache of overhead or employee costs when I didn’t need it.” That’s when he met Makers.
Since December 2010, the London-based consultancy Makers has been working with designers, offering everything from basic business and product development advice to prototyping, manufacturing, and distribution. It can walk a client through writing a marketing strategy or calculate costs and logistics based on a concept sketch. Six of its sixteen clients already have Makers-made goods on the market. “Makers is a resource that fills in the gaps that would otherwise prevent a good product from getting to market,” says Christopher Pett, a former political analyst who conceived of the venture while heading Pli Design, an ecofriendly furniture company he founded in 2003. “Seeing how dumb big businesses can get,” he says, “has taught me to believe that small, agile, smart, local enterprises can be very competitive, innovative, and potentially disruptive.”
Barriers to design entrepreneurship aren’t as high as they once were, Pett explains: “The traditional notion that designers must sell their work to a large, vertically integrated manufacturer for a royalty payment makes less sense today.” CAD software, 3-D printing, online marketplaces, and design-business education have eroded long-held ideas about the need to surrender intellectual property to the producer.
Makers supplies skills, knowledge, and networks of expert partners that designers don’t have the time to develop themselves, but it stakes no claim to intellectual property. Costs and services are detailed up front and billed on a monthly basis, while clients visit factories, learn how to reduce costs, or improve the out-of-box customer experience. “If they grow, we’ll grow, so it’s my job to supply whatever constitutes the alternative to the traditional—and in my opinion, iniquitous—relationship between designers and manufacturers,” Pett says.
By September, Milton’s Outline range was on show at the London Design Festival. He sells directly to architects, interior designers, and contract specifiers and is talking to a big UK retailer about carrying his furniture. “I’ve learned at all stages of the relationship,” he says, “and I can absolutely use this knowledge on future projects.”
“People have been saying for years that UK manufacturing is finished and our future lies in service industries and banking,” Pett says. “In a small way, Makers and our clients give the lie to that idea.”