The Crowd of One

by Ric Merrifield

The Customer Segment of “Me”

by Ric Merrifield

The Crowd of One - Blank LabelI think a lot of people have seen this collision coming, where so many people want to express their individuality, but so many of the things we buy are mass-produced – it gets harder and harder in many ways for people to express their individuality without spending a fortune.

Somewhat of a third vector in this collision is the rise of a term called “crowdsourcing” where people look to the groups of people who buy or use their products (the term is broader than that, but that’s a common focus) for ideas on innovation and product direction. Chaordix is one company in particular that I have gotten familiar with and it is interesting to watch them introduce the term “crowd” into the business lexicon and help organizations understand the need to get in touch with their crowds, however big, or small, they may be.

When I read this article by Amy Wallace in the paper this morning, it put a big smile on my face, that for now at least someone has figured out a way to capitalize on the lower cost labor in Asia to capitalize on this collision. As Wallace describes, Boston-based Blank Label is a company that lets you design every part of a shirt, and they will make it for you in their Shanghai factory for a price that’s about the same as a new shirt off the shelf at Brooks Brothers. As the 22 year-old founder and CEO, Fan Bi, described, he found himself working for an investment bank and at the time:

“I felt I’m just one very, very small ant in this massive firm.”

It turns out that’s a big part of why I left Accenture, but that’s a blog for another day.

I think Blank Label is really on to something and I suspect they will be very successful with this model in helping people feel less ant-like, socially and at work.

This is such an extraordinary time we live in when we can custom design clothing to the exact specifications (and if you look at Blank Label, there are a lot of different things to choose from in a shirt beyond color, collar and cuff style) we want. Over the last couple of years I have talked hypothetically of the notion of the customer segment of “me” where people increasingly expect messages and coupons to be tailored to their specific preferences and tastes. Alice.com does a great job of that in the consumer packaged goods arena, but for a clothing maker to do this really takes things to a new level and while low cost labor in Asia is getting more expensive every year, I am not so sure this model will be short lived. By that I mean that I think we will soon see the viability of this model without the need for low cost labor.

With everything computerized at the design level today, from the Dell laptop, now to the personalized logos you can put on M&Ms candy for a surprisingly low price, and now custom shirts, I think we will see more and more of these “crowds of 1? and I think that’s great because the customer gets what they want and value and the manufacturer manages to get scale where they need it.

I am not suggesting that big crowds are about to be a thing of the past. As long as there are products like Snickers bars, there will always be great big crowds buying them, but I do think it adds an interesting dimension to the innovation world where increasing numbers of businesses and industries can cater to the more individualized tastes of their customers. “How” they do that has some new options today, but we have now seen time, and time again, that that’s “what” a lot of customers want.

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Ric Merrifield is known at the “Business Scientist” at Microsoft Corporation in Redmond, WA and is the author of “Rethink“. He blogs about ways to rethink through getting out of what he calls “the ‘how’ trap”.

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