John Ruskin, an art critic in the 1800s, lamented the loss of art and craftsmanship with the rise of industrialism. He wanted to see a resurgence of quality materials made by the hands of highly skilled artisans and not the soulless mass produced and shoddily built factory products.

What do the writings of Ruskin, who influenced William Morris, the father of the Arts & Crafts Movement (one of my favorite design periods), have to do with freelancing, consulting or done-for-you services?

I see the ideals from that era as an archetype for your business.

6 or 7 years ago I started giving this advice to web designers (or would-be web designers): either be an artist or an industrialist. Hire cheaper labor to build the websites or be a world-class web designer to the extent you’re making art. The people in-between the artist and the industrialist were getting squeezed out financially.

I knew I didn’t have the passion to be a world class artist for web design. And I saw how fast website prices dropped after the dotcom boom. I was a part of a team that built a $500,000 website in 2000. In 2002, we built a similar site for $50,000 — 1/10 the cost. By 2004, content management systems were open source and easy to set up so a database-driven website (that’s what they were called before CMS) went from 10s of thousands to about $5000 (in certain instances one could still earn more, but I knew lots of web designers who experienced that drop).

I started hiring cheaper labor to counter the downward trend.

But now, I see that the markets have stabilized a bit and (almost 2 years ago) I started giving the advice of the Artist, Craftsman and Industrialist.

The Artist is someone who has cultivated amazing talent and has become known for uniqueness and beauty. For a web designer (or anyone making something to sell) you have to become one of the best in the world and get known as one of the best in the world to become an Artist. The Artist can only handle a few clients a year.

Then there is the Craftsman. A master craftsman is like an artist, but focuses on the objective of the customer and not solely his or her art. The main differentiator is that a Craftsman will also hire and train people to assist in the production, but with the purpose of them becoming craftsmen too. The Craftsman can handle dozens of clients per year.

The Industrialist makes a factory for his or her products. Affordable labor is hired and are set to work within a system. The Industrialist does not make the product or provide the service. That is what the factory is for. The Industrialist may not make the best looking product in the world, but it will be consistent and typically an acceptable level of quality — maybe even high quality like Apple products.

I’m still a fan of the Industrialist model. It allows the creativity to build and scale systems. I’ve learned years ago that I don’t really want to do the labor.

However, because things have stabilized for Internet-related services, the Craftsman is a viable option. You have to be really good and more importantly be good at getting a small team to help you, but it can be a profitable venture.

The Artist, well you probably wouldn’t be here reading this if that was you as you would be too engrossed in perfecting your art.

Which are you going to choose? It will affect your business model and the systems you build.

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