Here is a micro-summary (not to be confused with a micro-brewery). A hipster is one of the tribe of creative urban dwellers, often bearded, which has transformed parts of the gritty inner city into oases of arts venues, single-estate coffee shops, digital start-ups, artisan bakeries and antique smoking-pipe shops. Turning their backs on the homogenised, the bland and the corporate, hipsters have embraced all things handmade, ‘crafted’, unique and authentic.
Some may call this ‘micro-connoisseurship’, some may call this incredible pretention, but the question for us is: what can the hipster teach us about creating content for boutique asset managers?
For the hipster, it’s all about the bespoke, the handcrafted and that all-important vibe of authenticity. Hipsters often run their own small businesses; they buy, make and sell, and are passionate about their products.
Take this website for traditional English work clothes. Great care and attention to detail has gone into the making of these items. They are not for the mass market, but for knowledgeable consumers who have not found what they want on the high street, so are willing to go to the smaller producer to seek it out.
Boutique asset managers can absolutely learn from this approach. Instead of pretending to be a big player, it’s entirely respectable to take pride in being small and to emphasise the quality of your product and the much greater level of personal service. There are many, many customers who don’t want to invest with a global corporation, but instead want to use a company that takes the time to listen to the customer and tailor to their needs.
Lesson 2. Tell the story behind the product
One of the most famous hipster businesses is Mast Brothers, the Brooklyn-based creators of craft chocolate. The company’s website shares the story of the bearded entrepreneurs with their ‘obsessive attention to detail’ and use of ‘complex and rare cacao’ in the quest to create bars in unique flavours, which come wrapped in luxury papers. Cadbury’s this is definitely not.
Many smaller asset management companies were started by fund managers who purposefully defected from bigger companies in order to tread their own path in the investment world. The most famous example is Warren Buffett, who left New York and went back to Omaha, Nebraska, to set up Berkshire Hathaway. Every year, successful fund managers leave big companies to set up on their own.
The hipster entrepreneur would urge boutique asset managers to embrace their individuality and explain in detail why their company is smaller, why it takes a different approach and why this brings benefits. Not being constrained by the benchmark of larger institutions, being able to back personal convictions – these are powerful reasons why smaller asset managers can take a different tack and investors would definitely like to know more. Terry Smith of Fundsmith does it well here.
Lesson 3. High tech is hip
For all the tweed waistcoats and Victorian flat caps, most hipsters are high-tech beings. Those coconut milk lattes are always payable by contactless. The hipster start-up boss does business with Japan from her iPad, knows her SEO analytics and takes her latest iPhone with her wherever she goes.
Small asset management companies should be embracing the digital future too. Their next generation of customers will be totally at home with tech and looking to invest with companies which offer digital services such as mobile-friendly apps, the ability to check portfolios on the go and, of course, are at ease with connecting and sharing on social media. A company like Nutmeg is from the new breed of online, high-tech, app-savvy financial service providers.
Lesson 4. Take pride in your expertise
Whether you are the creator of the first gold ETP or the person who decided to flavour beer with coriander, the hipster way is to be the expert in your field, not shy of showcasing and sharing your deep knowledge and enthusiasm.
Small companies don’t have limitless resources to promote themselves and they can’t compete with a fully staffed marketing newsroom. However, they can be experts in their field and nimbly responsive on social media.
Using the company website, regular blogs, tweets and any other opportunities to expound on your specialist subject and make it clear that you really know what you’re talking about is the way to develop here: instead of knowing a little about a lot, concentrate on knowing a great deal about a specialised field. The hipster example? Prick, purveyors of over 150 types of exotic cacti and no other kind of plant. The asset manager example? Scottish Oriental only invests in Asia; the Biotech Growth Trust focuses on the biotechnology industry; and Edinburgh Partners emphasises the necessity of long-term value.
Lesson 5. Keep it real
For many companies, their website is now the primary shopfront to the world. So it’s crucial that the homepage should be not just an image flickering on a computer screen, but a window into a real place staffed with real people.
Look how well this New York design agency does it, complete with bikes against the wall and office pot plants. Hipsters have realised that the less likely customers are to visit your office, the more they need to feel it’s really there and what it is all about. This website for investment managers Walter Scott opens the door on its historic, grade-A listed address. Their customers don’t need to come to Edinburgh to know that this landmark townhouse is where a team of experts is looking after their investments.
The hipster business understands the value in being unique: nothing bland, nothing corporate, nothing soulless. So, it could be time for asset managers to re-think all that wall-to-wall grey and glass in favour of something more original. Monocles and restored penny farthings may be a step too far, but a smaller company should be able to project a much more human and approachable look than the big players.
Lesson 6: Keep it ethical
Any hipster business aims to pay above minimum wage and beyond fair trade prices. It usually deals only in what is organic, clean and green. It’s part of the authenticity that every item sold can be traced right back to its origins – from bean to cup, from bean to bar, from piglet to pulled pork, cotton bud to linen work suit.
In asset management, this transparency can be lacking, although increasingly investors would like to know much more about the businesses they’re invested in. Many investors, especially female and younger investors, would like to know that their money is funding companies with a sound sense of responsibility, not those that make shady arms deals, exploit their workforce or dodge their taxes. Smaller asset managers, who are in a better position to be experts about the businesses they invest in, could steal a march in telling their customers everything they might want to know about their investments. Triodos Bank was created to be ethical. Impax Asset Management makes the sustainability of its investments a top priority.
Lesson 7: Treat your customer as a loyal and trusted friend
The best hipster businesses don’t just believe that their customer is always right; instead, they value the customer as a friend and comrade connoisseur. Customer comments, suggestions and even criticisms are welcomed and used to make the product even better. Customers who recommend the product are usually rewarded.
John Pepper, founder and CEO of burrito restaurants Boloco, says: ‘Our philosophy became “every customer deserves a response,” and that began our culture of just over-listening and over-reacting.’
A smaller company can and should look after its customers in the kind of personal way that a bigger company could never hope to match. Chatty newsletters, magazine-style-catalogues, regular blogs on subjects of interest, sharing customer tweets and Instagram pictures, meet ups, tweet ups and engaging with a solid Facebook community – these are some of the myriad of ideas that tiny, digitally sussed businesses have come up with to keep their customers close.
In so many ways, boutique asset managers could emulate these businesses and in doing so, turn their customers not just into committed promoters of the company, but into loyal followers who genuinely feel part of the company’s community. As an example, take a look at how asset manager Woodford communicates with customers. There are regular monthly updates, including a video interview with boss Neil Woodford; survey results are available on Twitter; comments receive responses from the Woodford team. The company’s stated aim is to: ‘set new standards for communicating with clients’.
Despite the relentless onslaught of globalisation, the hipsters have been proud to mount a sustained challenge to the idea that ‘bigger is better’ and have long held that small can indeed be beautiful. And of course, the best of these micro-businesses – think Innocent Smoothies or Brew Dog – have been so successful at being beautifully small that they’ve gone on to grow amazingly big.
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