Two ideas collided this morning, Boats I’d like to design and Crowd-Sourcing.
It struck me right away, “Why hadn’t I thought of this before?!”
The strangulation point that’s afflicted boat design – leaving Yacht Design to the side – has been the growing gap between what people can afford – in a world of lowering incomes and many competing interests and activities chasing less discretionary income – and what a design costs to produce. People would like a new design, can see at least some of the benefits of having a boat that fits their needs most closely; but they simply can’t afford what it costs to commission a design.
I’ve struggled with this all through my career. The conditions in which L. Francis Herresshoff or John Alden worked required a number of comfortably well-off middle class people with an abiding interest in the culture of boats and enough time and money and attention to spend on that pursuit. By the time I was starting out those conditions had already begun to pass away. Some designers did well with a mail-order, mass-market approach – minuscule compared to any really mass-market – or found a fortuitous relationship with the moneyed world of Yachting like Olin Stephens for example, finding his Mr. Sparkman and taking off from there.
For various reasons these paths either didn’t appeal or didn’t materialize for me. The alternative has been to subsidize many design commissions by simply not charging enough to cover my time. This of course was never a sustainable strategy!
Lately I’ve stumbled on a different approach, design consulting as a type of mentoring for people who have the capacities and the desire to do the physical work of designing a boat, but would like to have the added benefits of advice and counsel available to them at a rate they can afford. I’ll be fleshing this out in a later post, but basically this is an open-ended series of sessions where we go over the client’s – usually a home builder’s – requirements and plan out a strategy to let them do as much as they can towards designing their new boat. This continues as a series of reviews, either in person or through correspondence, at whatever frequency is needed, within an affordable time-frame. For someone familiar with construction plans, building a fairly simple boat, it’s surprising how much they are able to do for themselves. Each situation is different of course, and this system allows for infinite variation to meet particular circumstances.
I’ve never been able to fit into the model of “stock-plan” retailer. Not only is it too much business for me, but it tends to go against my philosophy of putting people into their own boats. The build-your-own-boat phenomenon has, to a significant extent, been limited by this tendency to start with some “one-size-fits-all” approach.
A home builder with some guidance can build the equivalent, even the superior example, of a bespoke craft. They have the time, and every incentive, to build the boat they want. Without compromising to meet some conception of a market. Of course when a custom design costs, or appears to cost, more than they can afford, people go for something available. Rather than pushing for something that might have an intimate connection for them.
Crowd-sourcing may be an answer to this. Positing that there are only two choices, a stock design or a custom one, is a little too limiting. There are a number of people who could be satisfied – not just having settled for – a particular boat design. Many people have found their ideal boat in a stock plan, but any pathway to connect people with what they want is fraught with dislocations and points of derailment. There will always be a certain falling between the cracks.
The current choices, of stock or custom, have left many people feeling their needs un-met.
The small, traditional boat/alternative boat world is a reaction to the soul-less consumer cattle market pushing to channel our desires to be on the water onto a path profitable and convenient for the industrial suppliers.
A third choice has been opening up and is being tried out in a number of other fields, crowd-sourcing.
Crowd-sourcing is such a simple principle. It takes advantage of the openings given to us by the web. If word can be spread widely enough, at little or no cost, then a quora of like-minded people can be introduced to each other to focus on a mutually agreed upon task.
The sticking point of negotiating commitment, getting from, “Yeah, that’s a great idea!” to “Here’s my down payment!” has always been a problem.
Crowd-sourcing handles this in a unique and exciting manner. The intermediary, handling the logistics of spreading the word and collecting the funds, sets up an escrow account as a trusted third-party. Each participant agrees that if a certain base level of financing is met, they will honor their commitment, as guaranteed by the third-party holding their payment, ready to refund their money if that level is not met within a reasonable time. This combines elements of a traditional auction with the way a bookie gathers and holds bets! The result is a situation where people can feel comfortable committing to say, “I’m in!”
This system looks like a great way to design boats!