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Slow Company

Festina lente

The ancient Stoics shared my contrarian love of paradoxes and the counterintuitive: lose in the short term to win in the long, let go of happiness in order to be happy, display your weakness in order to be strong, embrace calamity in order to find peace, etc. Among my favorite of these is the concept of festina lente, or "make haste, slowly." It observes that oftentimes the most effective, and thus actually fastest, way to reach a goal is to move toward it slowly. (The slowest way to get somewhere is to make hurried errors that cause you never to arrive at all.)

Globally-connected markets and online shopping tend to push expectations of speed in commerce ever faster. But, like so many of the naive metrics that now dominate our economic lives, speed-to-market and speed-to-doorstep are entirely beside the point for many products. I am, for example, in something that is the opposite of a commodity business; I make electronic art objects meant to last a lifetime, which are intended to help people connect with technological dreams. They are entirely fanciful and about as optional as a purchase can get.

My business is, if anything, all about slowing down and defying time, making strategic choices that most other businesses never would, focusing on a very long intertemporal game. I spent, for example, three arduous, active years developing and refining the (now patented) key stabilizer mechanism at the heart of the Seneca. The switch took even longer. The much-lauded Heavy Grail took years to develop.

Industrial designer Jesper Kouthoofd, the founder of Teenage Engineering (whom I greatly admire) put my own view perfectly: "We only want to make great products and when you don’t focus only on making money and have reached a certain level, everything becomes about quality. Right now, there is a certain cultural fascination with fast growth, IPOs and so on, but I want to go slow, really slow and think long-term. It takes time to do good things. You see, this cultural phenomenon of speed and growth at all costs is displayed in every startup, they all look the same, it’s like fast food: it looks good, its taste is consistent but then you feel horrible afterwards."

Slow is what I’m all about.

Strategically saying no

While I sometimes describe this as my "slow company" ethos (contrasting it with the Fast Company sensibility prevalent in post-90s Silicon Valley startup culture), it’s really about more than letting go of an excessive focus on speed per se. It’s about shrugging off all the stupid bullshit that the hustle crowd likes to claim is essential to entrepreneurship or (ugh) running an "online brand."

Saying no to the superfluous means reducing waste, freeing resources, and minimizing distractions so I can redirect my efforts to what really matters—both to me and my clients.

Here are a few ways I intentionally set aside some of the Kabuki theater of commerce to actually serve my clients better:

I'm not connected 24/7. Maintaining the infrastructure for always-instantaneous, round-the-clock human support adds a lot of cost and inefficiency to an operation. I’ve tried it. It didn’t lead to better outcomes or experiences for clients, and it left me feeling out of touch. So I decided to become more involved again. Since, happily, there is really no such thing as a keyboard emergency, I choose to focus on quality of service over speed of response, trying to respond to as many inquiries personally myself as I can. To do this, I typically set aside a few hours every couple of days to sit down and give correspondence my full attention. It’s a little slow, but it’s better.

My small California workshop ships out small parcel batches only about once per week. I proceed from the belief that, for something that aims to be a timeless heirloom object, having it arrive in 2 days versus 4 makes no meaningful difference. This allows me and my team to work efficiently, focusing on care and quality over a very shallow and ultimately unimportant metric.

I don’t worship scaling, so I’m quite content with limited supply. Sustainability is far more important to me than revenue growth. Historically, most of my products have been offered as pre-orders before the manufacturing run even begins and then are sold out by the time the product is shipping. Others are in-stock items in small quantities that sometimes sell out within minutes (occasionally even before I’ve announced it anywhere). Sure, this means I’m regularly passing up min-maxing opportunities (as the kids say) to sell more stuff. But it also means I don’t over-produce, and that I have the bandwidth to ensure that every transaction is executed well and profitably. This is how you avoid blowing up.

I don’t pay influencers or use online advertising. My brand’s reputation has been built slowly and entirely through voluntary word of mouth, without any prompting from me. I rarely touch Discord/Reddit or participate in the online keyboard hype machine. I communicate primarily through my opt-in email newsletter. While I do occasionally try to write essays about the reasoning and engineering behind what I do, I otherwise endeavor simply to make sure my clients get a good, personal, intentional experience—and then hopefully to let the work speak for itself.

To choose deliberation in these ways means occasionally seeming like a small-time operation. But that’s precisely what Norbauer & Co. is. I’m very OK with this, and I ask that my clients be too.