The Bright Future of Craftsmanship

European Straits #139

Nicolas Colin

Dear all,

🎉 This week marks the release of my wife Laetitia Vitaud’s book Du Labeur à l’ouvrage (in French 🇫🇷—for the moment 😉). There will be a presentation at The Family in Paris tonight, and you can register by clicking here. And keep an eye out, there will also probably be quite a lot of media coverage, including in English, for those of you who want to know more before purchasing the book 👀

As for me, I wanted to seize the opportunity to tell you more about how Laetitia came to write this book, its core message, and how it relates to the topics that I frequently discuss in this newsletter 👇

⚠️ Before that, just a quick announcement: Starting next week, I'll move your subscription for this newsletter from Mailchimp to Substack. And I’m finally getting around to putting a title on it: European Straits (as in, the path is narrow for European tech between the US and China). This won’t change much, except that next week’s issue will be sent by europeanstraits@substack.com — so make sure to add this new address to your contacts to avoid having it end up in your spam folder.

Make craftsmanship great again

1/ A bit less than 5 years ago, Laetitia and I decided to leave Paris and move to London 🇬🇧💂 There were three reasons for that. One was that The Family was planning to open an office there to foster our pan-European expansion. And so I went on to live in London publishing our first pieces of content in English and getting to know interesting people. Another reason was that we really wanted our children to learn English—and it worked: now they actually speak English better than French 😮. The third reason was that Laetitia wanted to switch from being a teacher, and we assumed that it would be easier in a non-French environment (the unofficial French motto could well be “You never switch.”).

2/ What happened afterwards put Laetitia on track to specialize in everything relating to the future of work. At first, things went as planned: she did a few interviews with various London-based employers and was then hired by a large company that, unlike most French employers, didn’t consider her teaching background a liability. But she soon realized she wasn’t happy there: having to deal with several layers of hierarchy, struggling to maintain a good work-life balance, and not being able to negotiate much leeway. The freedom that she had enjoyed when she was teaching students in classes préparatoires had disappeared as soon as she joined the large corporation. She wasn’t happy—at all 😥.

3/ Debriefing that painful experience was quite straightforward. The problem was not that particular corporation. Rather, it was because she had found herself in an environment, the corporate world, that is based on two core principles: subordination and division of labor. If she wasn’t happy being an employee of this particular corporation, then she would never be happy being employed by any corporation. And I certainly couldn’t convince her otherwise: I myself had never been an employee in the common sense of the term, my only professional experiences having been as an inspecteur des finances (that is, a free agent doing topical, spirited research for the French minister of finance) and as an entrepreneur.

4/ The conclusion that Laetitia drew was that she had to be self-employed. And to succeed as a freelancer, she had to find a topic to specialize in. She had a broad range of skills: public speaking (a former teacher), a gift for analysis and synthesis, the mastery of three languages (she used to teach English and is half-German). What purpose should she use all those skills for? She decided to make it simple and use her own experience as a starting point: over the course of a few months, she had gone from being a state-employed teacher to being a corporate employee to being on her own. What she soon discovered was that there was much in common between her more entrepreneurial life as a freelancer and her previous life as a teacher. As this was so unexpected (after all, teachers are supposed to be everything but entrepreneurial), she decided that was something worth digging into.

5/ Fast forward to today: Laetitia is now a renowned expert on the future of work. She’s been working with organizations such as Switch Collective, Malt, the Institut Montaigne, and more recently Welcome to the Jungle. And she’s been using her range of professional experiences to come up with a powerful narrative. As she told an audience at the Royal Society of Arts a few days ago, “In the twentieth century, the dominant work model was that of the Fordist “bundle”. In exchange for division of labour and subordination, each worker was offered a bundle of benefits...But for roughly four decades now we’ve been experiencing a global unbundling of jobs...The result is bad jobs, insufficient hours and revenues, no access to housing, job hopping, no sense of agency, isolation, and a lack of bargaining power.”

6/ At the core of Laetitia’s book is this idea of “The Bundle”. When the bundle worked so well, it was acceptable for workers to be subordinated to demanding bosses and alienated by the division of labor. But without the bundle, the balance at the heart of this socio-institutional compromise is all but gone. It shouldn’t be a surprise that in the absence of a functioning bundle, workers are starting to ask harsh questions. The most skilled among them quit to become freelancers and entrepreneurs. Others get depressed realizing that they have what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”. A third group decides that it’s OK but keeps the mind busy with other gigs on the side. This all determines what Simon Kuper dubbed “The Great Middle Class Identity Crisis”: who are we if we’re no longer defined by our salaried job?

7/ What does the future hold? If the key to individual happiness is no longer a work contract, then we must reinvent what work is about, and Laetitia thinks it should revolve around the values and principles of craftsmanship—autonomy, responsibility, and creativity. Hence the title of the book: Du Labeur (“From Labor...”, which denotes routine, alienation, and pain)... à l’ouvrage (“...to Craftsmanship”, which is all about self-determination, fulfillment, connections...and uncertainty). The norm used to be about being alienated along assembly lines while enjoying “the bundle”. Tomorrow, the norm might be about working on our own, just like craftsmen, yet being connected to others through networks.

8/ Of course, there’s nothing new about craftsmanship. Laetitia’s book includes significant moments of historical precedent where craftsmanship had the upper hand, from the witches and midwives of the Dark Ages to the 19th-century Arts and Craft movement inspired by William Morris. She also explains why craftsmanship was cast aside in the 20th century, when Taylorism and the Fordist socio-institutional framework delivered higher productivity and overall prosperity. It was simply impossible to maintain craftsmanship as a model when another approach to production and consumption delivered such rewarding outcomes. But now that’s over, and we as a society are being asked to reconsider things.

9/ Indeed, if craftsmanship went away, that also suggests that it can come back. And clearly there are many signs in today’s Entrepreneurial Age of an unprecedented ability to empower craftsmanship—from Upwork to Etsy to craft beer to the extraordinary rise of trendy barbershops. Many services in the fields of consumer finance and insurance are designed to reward individuals with a restored sense of agency. Influential thinkers such as Carlota Perez and Hilary Cottam make the case that craftsmanship—work essentially based on human connections—might be the key to restoring prosperity. And venture capitalists are joining in as well. You shouldn’t miss this great podcast series recently launched by Ben Horowitz and Shaka Senghor: ‘Hustlin’ Tech’—Guides to Technology for Hustlers.

10/ What will it take to deliver this better future? The short version is: You should read the book. But really, what it will take is a great deal of institutional innovation: many things need to be reinvented, from the social safety net to labor law to management to corporate governance. It’s happening as we speak, with startups, large tech companies and even some governments coming up with new approaches to everything from production to consumption to organization to work. But it will happen even faster and, hopefully, without too much pain and friction, if we share a common understanding of both the transition that is occurring and the collective purpose we want to pursue. This is why I look forward to many people reading Laetitia’s book and feeling inspired by her message.

🇬🇧 For those of you who don’t read French, you’ll have to wait a bit before an English version is available. In the meantime here’s a selection of Laetitia’s articles in English:

🇫🇷 Also, if you do read French, don’t miss the series that Laetitia published throughout the summer to highlight the thinkers that influenced her as she was writing the book: Barbara Ehrenreich, David Graeber, Silvia Federici, Henry George, Jane Jacobs, John Ruskin, Mariana Mazzucato, William Morris, and Hillary Cottam. Or simply go and order the book on Amazon 🤗.

📰 I am now a columnist at Sifted, the media site backed by the Financial Times that is specializing in covering tech entrepreneurship in Europe. You should expect two columns a month for a start, maybe more in the future. The first was published on Monday, about how Europeans misinterpret the superficial characteristics of Silicon Valley as they try and build their own tech companies: It takes a thriving ecosystem for entrepreneurs to fail safely.

💰 On another front, I’ve been pursuing my reflection on allocating capital in these times of paradigm shift. You can read my rant directed at asset managers on LinkedIn here: Asset Managers: Time to Account for Technology in Your Allocation Strategy.

For those of you who enjoy this newsletter but don't understand what exactly we do for entrepreneurs and startups at The Family, my cofounder Oussama recently sat down for an open office hour where he listened to early-stage entrepreneurs' key problems and helped them toward a solution. You can watch the video right here (in 🇫🇷—my apologies for the heavily French edition this week!).

Here are more articles on the bright future of craftsmanship:

Warm regards (from Paris, France),

Nicolas