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Dress Them in Horizontal Corduroy: Small batchers and fab on demand

I’ll surely lose a few well-intentioned readers with this opening line: my inspiration for this post came by way of several compliments I received the first day I wore my Cordarounds trousers to work. Still reading? Well, thanks to you both. Not to worry; I hope to get beyond the patent mundanity of a pair of trousers and address a few genre-bending trends happening in small Internet businesses—trends given a compound boost by the cheap technologies widely available and by the pitiful lack of capital that entrepreneurs have these days to float new businesses the traditional ways.

Okay, let’s have a look at the trousers first. Cordarounds is a two-person clothing company that embodies not only the gutsy Internet start-up tackling a conventional business, but also what’s become known as an Internet-based small batch operation. Basically they rapidly design and release an item in batches of 100 and then determinedly solicit customer feedback. If the design really sings, they’ll make another batch and sell them. But whether it’s popular or not, they’ll soon scrap it and take off with the next idea and float it out there to the indie rockers who need some pants to wear with their Mission of Burma t-shirts. My trousers, those that fetched so much notice, feature corduroy that travels horizontally—which I suspect are the signature product having blessed the company with its name. (Bonus: please note the highly social-networky feel to their site—the photos are submitted by fans and probably do more promotional heavy lifting than the conventional detail shots of stitching and such.)

Small batchers such as the folks at Cordarounds have a crucial ally in the fab on demand movement. No, not fab as in “absolutely fab rhinestones my dear,” but fab as in “fabrication,” or as in “fab labs.” I recall the thrilling sense of history-making I felt turning over in my gut when, years ago now, I heard a zealous Neil Gershenfeld speak at PopTech on the subject of the coming desktop fabrication revolution. (Hint: you didn’t miss it: it either hasn’t happened yet or is happening too slowly for most people to notice. Or you weren’t invited. (Just kidding!)) His basic argument was that, while the information revolution will continue to work out its importance in mild aftershocks, the real epicenter of future innovation is in ordinary citizens’ ability to create 3D objects really cheaply, really quickly, and really inexpensively with laser cutting “printers” at home—or at a small shop down the street next door to the butcher.

That shop doesn’t exist yet, of course, but Ponoko does. Think of Ponoko as your personal factory. As others in the vanguard of the fabrication revolution, this two-man outfit will take your napkin scribbles and laser-cut them for you on your way to market. Okay, you first need to create a workable file from your napkin scribbles, but you don’t have to do anything else! You don’t have to convince some captain of industry that your idea is worth investing in, you don’t have to max out three credit cards and double mortgage your house so that you can start your own production facility, and you don’t even have to make your own prototype out of Styrofoam and model glue. Nope. Just send your files and a small bit of cash, and a few weeks later you’ll be holding in your hot little hand that ergonomic combo shoe horn-bottle opener-Wi-Fi detector that you dreamed up while on vacation in Bali. (Hands off that idea, by the way; this post is basically my patent on it.)

Let us know if you’ve had encounters in the land of fab labs or small batchers. And don’t forget to give us a nod if you’re the grooviest one in the office this fall because you’re sporting horizontal cords!

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