July 28, 2006 by Colin
Underground blogosphere, eh? Drawing on my background in economic history, I present you with a medieval analogy:
Once upon a time, four young scribes frequented the same market square. They each had their own specialty – calligraphy, ornamentation, court documents and market hoarding – and each had built up a profitable clientele among the local carts and vendors.
Chance meetings at the nearby butcher, baker and candlestick makers brought the four together. As they found spare moments free from their demanding work, they eventually spoke about their craft.
As their skills improved, their markets grew. They discussed customers, competitors and business opportunities.
They expanded into other market squares across town, building on information they had gleaned from neighbours, family, suppliers and customers. Business was growing for all four – but one had greater ambitions.
Always a resourceful fellow, he had. been speaking to one of his customers, a fisherman. Hired to refresh his market stall hoarding, the scribe learned of a new lettering technique that helped cram more information onto each poster and sign he created.
This technique meant more effective work for his clients: their customers saw more information more quickly and more clearly. This meant more sales.
And since this new technique was unknown in their town, his work was lauded as imaginative, creative, innovative and a challenge to traditional conventions.
Naturally, any client who risked their business on this new technique had to be similarly gifted. That was plainly evident.
And no businessman was going to be outstripped by his peers – especially on something as simple, but obvious, as hoardings.
Town burghers flocked to the market square, looking for him. Business boomed. The other scribes benefited from the increased traffic, as well as the spill-off work he handed around.
Eventually, though, the burghers tired of standing among headless chickens, sacks of flour and rotting potatoes, waiting for his attention. Their business was normally conducted in hallways, not alleyways, and lunch was served on a tray, not on oilcloth.
The town burghers cleared a space for the still-young scribe in the town hall. There, he had acess to the guild offices, to the court registry, to the trappings of power and influence.
The new techniques could be applied to many facets of business: after all, there were many more ways to present information than just posters, signs and hoardings. The scribe began preaching the benefits of his technique to his new-found clients and colleagues.
His influence slowly spread beyond town hall: as the forward-thinking burghers showed off their new protoge and their pretty new signs, their friends and competitors returned to the market square, looking to their regular scribes for similar work.
Meanwhile, the other scribes in the market square, the ones who had previously specialized in calligraphy, ornamentation and court documents, had realized there was more business to be had.
It was obvious their old colleague had found great success. They had seen it with their own eyes. They heard it from their customers. Change was obviously necessary.
Talking amongst themselves, the three decided that simple duplication would not be enough. They would have to improve upon their old colleague’s work.
In practice, this meant collaboration. The fishermen had brought more examples of innovative work from ports abroad. Word of new techniques had been passed along by travellers from other towns. When clerics arrived, they brought along texts from distant centres of learning.
Innovation was progressing. Original techniques had become commonplace. Every scribe had to adapt to a more complex, but rewarding, profession.
For their old colleague, now comfortably ensconced in a community of notables and nobles, these developments presented a challenge.
How would he maintain his position of authority and influence if his innovative work was outstripped?
How could he keep his reputation as a thought leader if his profession advanced beyond him?
At the same time, how could he keep tabs on his competitors?
Especially if their work was largely conducted between individuals, among friends, and in market squares?
After all, it had become obvious business was much more easy to conduct after a warm meal, a good mug of beer and a convivial guild meeting.
It really was a sympathetic system of government: markets were influenced, to a large part, by the self-appointed regulation of the burghers, with the complicity of the guilds.
The trick, of course, was to drag, convince or connive your way into the ranks of the privileged – and then hang on with all your might.
It was all gravy from that point on.