Hammers and Tongs

Eight Minutes September 19, 2017 10:52

So with Glenn Fleischman's article out about us, it won't be long before somebody asks me where "eight minutes" came from. Why not six, or five? Or three?

For the moment, Amazon offers most of our custom products as Amazon Prime items. Like all new products on Amazon, momentum builds up slowly. Early on I was looking at the order queue, and we had, I don't know, five or six Prime custom orders in the queue. These days we have can have as little as two whole hours for those last few orders from the order being placed to heading out our doors. Back then we hadn't yet built the relationship that we have with UPS today. Our pickup was earlier, and our rates meant that we could only offer product in the Pacific northwest. And our fabrication and assembly processes were, well, umm, not quite soup yet. And I was looking at these orders thinking to myself that if this stuff gets to twelve trailing orders a day we'll have to get each one done in 8 minutes. Which meant we had some work to do.

Of course, that's kind of silly, because it's not like we're a one-person shop, and making ten of the same thing doesn't take ten times as long as making one of those things.

And I more or less forgot about the whole thing. But once or twice a week, somebody asks me what Buttonsmith does.

It's hard to answer, because our portfolio of products changes so fast that it's hard to keep up. In the past eight months we've launched several new product categories; brought our lanyard manufacturing in-house; made a significant commitment to "Made in US" manufacturing; established our first traditional retail channel; created new capabilities for customization; introduced new methods of shirt production; expanded our button, magnet, and badge reel options; expanded our merchant-fulfilled Amazon prime offerings from regional to national; and made a host of other changes I'm forgetting. If you think of a company as defined by its product categories, we just don't pigeonhole very well.

To make things even more confusing, Buttonsmith is neither an online business nor a brick-and-mortar wholesale business. Most of our revenue is generated online, but we are actively building channel relationships in traditional retail. As the person whose desk chair is perched across the division between those two worlds, I can tell you that's not a comfortable straddle. It's an exercise in incompatible systems and assumptions reflecting fundamentally different experience and world-views.

So what does Buttonsmith do, exactly?

Here are some of the answers people expect:

  • Buttonsmith makes lanyards. We created the category of premium artistic lanyards.
  • Buttonsmith manufacturers US-Made badge reels with swappable tops.
  • We're those folks who get custom business cards to your door three weeks before the competition, cheaper, better, and more of them!
  • We're that kid's badge reelcompany that can't really figure out what we want to be when we grow up (the kid being our founder Henry).

 All of those are true, but none of them really describe us. 

I struggled a while with this question, and eventually I settled on an answer: Buttonsmith makes things that can be individually personalized in eight minutes or less.

Way back when Henry was selling buttons at local farmer's markets, one of the things that made us different was making personalized items. Henry and Darcy didn't just take buttons to market. They took a printer and button making tools. They sold pre-made buttons, but the real attraction was buttons that were unique and specific to each customer. As we've grown, the equipment has become more sophisticated and the product set has expanded, but the idea of personalization hasn't changed.

I look at the order queue now, and we're way past the point where we can afford to spend eight minutes on each custom item.

Anyway, that's where eight minutes came from.


What's in a Name? January 26, 2017 07:30

So we've been buying up all this equipment, which raised the need to name them...

It started with the Xerox C75 Digital Press, which is a monster of a machine. I used its distant ancestors during my days at Bell Labs, and things have come a long way since then. We did our product catalog on it for the Seattle gift show, complete with cover, folding, and staples (Look, ma! No Hands!). It didn't take long for Mike to name it "Goliath".

Then there were these poor little letterpress machines coming in. Old school. Sure, they out-weigh the C75 by several tons, and (surprisingly) they print just as fast (73 pages per minute for the *slow* one), but compared to the digital press they somehow seem like the underdog if you are inclined to confuse "new" with "better". Pretty soon, slings were twirling in everybody's minds, and "David" it was for the inking Heidelberg. Where upon nothing would do but for the foil press to be named "Sheba". Because, you know, gold foil...

Aside: Here in the 21st century it may seem archaic to buy printing equipment that was designed in 1913 (ours are not that old), but the Heidelberg Windmill Press (officially the Heidelberg T-Platen press) was - and still is - the king of letterpress. One of those cases where "this is old and therefore good" is actually true. But if there's ever a case of David and Goliath in a modern shop, I can't think of a better example than putting a Heidelberg Windmill press next to a Xerox C75.

That left the big Heidelberg to be named. Since it's a 60 ton press, the team named it "Sampson", with the inevitable side-effect that the new paper cutter got tagged with "Delilah"...

And with the biblical name pattern firmly underway, the wide-format Inkjet became Solomon. I don't think that one is very compelling. Solomon was *wise*, not *wide*.

Personally, I think it's pretty funny that a bunch of died-in-the-wool progressives chose old testament biblical names. It's even funnier that the one-time Rabbi-in-training had nothing to do with the naming process.

- Jonathan Shapiro, COO, Buttonsmith Inc.


Welcome January 22, 2017 07:30

Buttonsmith is an interesting place to work. We're a small, union manufacturer of US-made products, staffed and led by a curious collection of geeks, tinkerers, and software folks. The products we make are:

  • Buttons, Magnets, and Tinker Top® badge reel tops
  • Tinker Reel® badge reels
  • Tee shirts
  • Lanyards, and
  • (Soon) Customized banners, cards, photos, and printing packages

These require a surprising array of activities ranging from design, to light manufacturing, to software, to commercial printing.

The "Hammers and Tongs" series gives an occasional glimpse of what goes on behind the curtain here at the Smithy.