If early adopters of a radically new product ideally include trendsetters and tastemakers, a designer of creative textiles, clothing accessories and jewelry couldn’t aim higher than Dior, Givenchy, Chanel and Armani. Prize-winning Israeli artisan-entrepreneur Tzuri Gueta counts all of these giants of high fashion among his promoters. Even Jean-Paul Gaultier, whose clients include US pop music star Madonna, adorned mannequins with Gueta’s distinctive handmade work at a 2015 exhibit of Gaultier’s haute couture at the Grand Palais museum in Paris. “People like my vision and my universe,” he told me. “They like the material and want it to be strong, very expressive.”
Gueta and his assistants apply a proprietary technique developed over many years to incorporate delicate fibers like mohair and silk into synthetic silicon polymers. They then transform the resulting “silicon lace” into jewelry, accessories and textiles resembling organic objects—bones, coral, pearls, feathers, tree bark and even leather.
Nearly a decade ago, encouraged by his success with fashion influencers, Gueta decided to bring his creations downmarket. Since first exhibiting at a trade show in 2006, his firm Silka Design has sold a affordable jewelry to consumers through over 200 outlets worldwide, including a showcase boutique in Paris and online.
Sales initially soared. But sustainable growth later proved elusive, Gueta said. Sales became sluggish. Consumer taste can be fickle and perhaps nowhere more so than in fashion. Gueta worried that the novelty of silicon lace and his distinctive organic designs might have simply spawned a short-lived fad. Would his creations eventually become unfashionable?
Gueta, an inveterate experimenter, blurs the lines between artist, artisan, inventor and entrepreneur. While creating beautiful jewelry and accessories, he continues to boldly explore new techniques and business models. Sounding a lot like venture craftsmen in Silicon Valley, he wonders how to leverage his knack for innovating new composite materials and wearable designs into a profitable growth business. He has even designed manufacturing equipment, not yet realized, meant to introduce variability mimicking the handmade while loosening current constraints on production volume.
The Israeli venture craftsman, a pragmatist, readily acknowledges he may need to adjust the current business model, which still relies mostly on growing sales of his jewelry and accessories. Instead, broadening his reach by licensing beautiful, distinctive materials made with his proprietary technique to haute couturiers and fabric makers might provide a more economically viable path.
My discussions with Gueta reminded me that popular approaches to building and growing startups are often based on faulty or out-of-date assumptions. Everett Rogers (who published his seminal and still often cited work on the diffusion of innovation over 50 years ago) believed that a new product or service must be broadly adopted in order to self-sustain, that is, to generate a sufficient return on investment to cover ongoing investments in commercialization. The number of early adopters for any new product—which he ballparked at around 15%—could not possibly provide necessary scale, Rogers believed. He defined early adopters as trendsetters and opinion leaders whose importance resided in the influence they could yield over much larger numbers of prospective “mainstream” users and buyers.
But Rogers was a rural sociologist living at a time when successful innovations spread to larger markets in 10-year cycles. They depended on a small number of mass media and advertising channels to reach buyers and social systems that were composed of large, easily identifiable and slow-changing market segments. Today, trends like globalization, declining costs of innovation, mass customization of products and services, multiplication of radio and TV and the emergence of the Worldwide Web as a pervasive new medium for branding, commerce and retaining customers mean many young ventures achieve viability without scaling up through mainstream adoption.