In Part I of our interview, we left off with Kevin Godbee asking Sykes Wilford:
“Are there some things that you think the industry in general, or SmokingPipes.com specifically can be doing, or is doing to help promote new people coming into the hobby?”
Sykes Wilford: This is something I’ve given a lot of thought to. How do we reach people who are potential pipe smokers but not actual pipe smokers? And how do we do it navigating the anti-tobacco climate? How do we do it with such a small industry? Read Part I of the Sykes Wilford Interview Here … or Continue to Part II …
PM.com: We don’t want to get the “Joe Camel” syndrome and be accused of trying to get children to smoke.
SW: That’s obviously not our goal, but it would be great to reach college age cigarette smokers, and say ‘hey this is much cooler’. That would be awesome. How do you go about doing that in a cost efficient way is a challenge that we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about.
I think publications like PipesMagazine.com play a role in that. I think that the nature of the discourse needs to change a little bit to attract different people. The discourse of the pipe show is very hobbyist, and that’s fine. I love that stuff too.
PM.com: You’re almost preaching to the choir (at a pipe show).
SW: Exactly. You saw me get all excited about the nomenclature on a Dunhill that was the 130th Dunhill that I looked at that afternoon, so I’m right there with those guys.
I think that the proliferation of information on the Internet is really key to reaching other people.
That’s what I did when I started, after my first abortive attempt at smoking a pipe. There wasn’t much on the Internet in 1999, but that’s changed. My generation, and especially younger; generation Y, whatever that generation that’s after mine; guys in their early, mid 20s; that’s where we go for information.
They grew up with the Internet, I didn’t grow up with the Internet in the same way, but had it late in high school and college.
Really, anyone under thirty turns first to the internet for information.
I mean, that’s the deep vault. I use Google probably 100 times a day and it’s absolutely essential that there be welcoming, useful, non-hobbyist, nuts and bolts information on the Internet for new pipe smokers.
And more than that, they need to feel not just that they’re being told what to do, they need to feel like there’s a community there that’s welcoming them. Not a community with secret handshakes.
I’m not knocking the pipe community, but every esoteric collector community, intellectual community, academic community has its own jargon; its’ means of differentiating itself from others. There are the secret handshakes. Anthropologically this just happens.
PM.com: Right and I think sometimes even guys that want to be welcoming to new people, we will just, by habit, sometimes use some jargon. We want to make sure that while we’re doing that, we also have developed this atmosphere where somebody’s not afraid to ask, what does that mean?
SW: Exactly. And again, this is not specific to the pipe world. It happens in cigars too. You know, you establish your credibility within the cigar business by talking about “leathery notes”. Among engineers, you use engineering language and they know you’re a fellow engineer. Among programmers, we use acronyms, abbreviations, make code jokes, we establish who is part of our tribe and who isn’t. I think it’s very important that we try to overcome that in pipes because otherwise, our numbers will slowly decrease until we’re extinct.
PM.com: Now on the other hand, a common opposing view is that there’s so much information on the internet that is incorrect.
SW: Well, do we want a philosophical argument about the Internet?
PM: Well, what would be your answer to somebody, say in a hypothetical situation at a pipe show, a more mature gentleman, a pipe smoker who has a lot of experience in pipe smoking happens to comment to you, “well, you know, I’m not so sure how great the Internet is for pipe smoking and pipe information because I know I found information that’s just plain wrong on there”.
More specifically, and this one is not hypothetical; Mark Ryan, the owner of L.A. Poche Perique Tobacco expressed frustration with all the misinformation about Perique Tobacco on the Internet. One website specifically states that Perique is only grown on one farm, when in fact, Mark has almost ten farmers growing Perique for him.
SW: From a philosophical perspective, this is a cultural debate we are having. This is not isolated to the pipe business. My mother’s a librarian and for years, she and I have talked about the organization of knowledge and data and stuff. I mean, this is her life’s work, she’s a librarian. The Internet poses real challenges to the traditional gatekeepers for knowledge and information. I mean, from a librarian’s perspective, it can be a threat or it can be this wonderful new tool and it’s all a matter of perspective.
To pull this out to the larger societal discussion or cultural discussion for a moment and then back to pipes, it’s most important that we create critical readers, not that we have appropriate gatekeepers.
I have read the most unadulterated trash in academic journals, and that has gone through the most rigorous of gate keeping processes. The Internet does not have that barrier to entry. You get a much broader selection of quality and perspectives and opinions, which I think is very valuable.
Wikipedia is everybody’s example of this. The idea is that Wikipedia is going to produce a new product and a more thorough product because it’s mass distributed and because lots of people are looking at it. And there’s tremendous validity to it, but you also have to be a critical reader of Wikipedia and go hey, that doesn’t look right when things don’t look right.
Back in the 90s, when Linux was rolling out and other open source software, there was a real debate; sort of almost a theological debate for some folks. What is the saying? … “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”.
[Editor’s note: This saying is computer programmer jargon where “bug” refers to a computer programming “bug”. The saying means that if enough people (eyeballs) look at something, any problems found become easy to solve. See Linus’ Law]
SW: There is something very important to that online dialogue and that online exchange of information that ultimately does by and large yield good results.
More importantly, and back to pipes because that’s actually what we’re talking about; to take the example you were telling me earlier about the Perique articles online. We know there is definitely a bunch of incorrect and outdated information about Perique tobacco. However, we also know that after your extensive interview with Mark Ryan that there is now fully updated and complete information on your website about Perique tobacco.
So let me ask you (Sykes asking Kevin): how much good information is there about Perique in print right now that’s current?
SW: Zero. So we have some people leveling a charge against the Internet. A charge can be leveled against the Internet, but that it’s no different than what can be leveled against print, except people don’t expect print to be current and people expect the Internet to be absolutely current.
PM.com: Right. And another thing too, with Web 2.0 features these days, like on PipesMagazine.com for example, somebody can read an article and if there’s something in there that they believe is wrong or they disagree with for whatever reason, they can comment and say no, that’s not right.
SW: It’s a fundamental dialogue …
PM.com: … and we have the ability to edit those comments, but we rarely do. I think there are probably thousands of comments over the last year and a half, I think two have been deleted for profanity or spam. I’ve had people say stuff where they are disagreeing with me and I let them disagree and then I tell them oh yeah, well, here’s my side of the story. But it’s a dialogue, right; you can’t do that in print either. You can’t say this is wrong and everybody who’s reading it sees that you said this is wrong.
SW: It is absolutely fundamental to the process of understanding outliers and data in this day in age and it speeds up that dialogue. There is dialogue in print, it just happens across decades.
PM.com: Right, exactly. And so, we got on this because we were talking about new people, younger people, getting into the hobby of pipe smoking, and we said that the Internet is the best way to facilitate the younger generation getting into pipes.
SW: I’m sorry. I took us far field there.
PM.com: Oh, that’s okay. Let’s talk about your customers. I’d be interested to know, what’s the full range of your customers and then who’s your typical customer?
SW: Historically, our typical customer is older, fifties and sixties, but we are seeing more younger customers. We don’t capture a lot of demographic data so I mean this is not objective information. It’s anecdotal but we are fortunately seeing more younger customers in their thirties, forties and younger than that too.
PM.com: I’m glad to hear that.
How is SmokingPipes.com different than other online pipe retailers?
SW: There are a lot of great pipe retailers out there, but what we do is extremely different. Every single pipe that comes through here is inspected individually and we reject x percent of whatever that percent variation is from brand to brand.
Then every single pipe gets measured and every single pipe gets photographed and every single pipe gets a description. We don’t use one product ID, we don’t use one sku for a shape finish / combination. There are, right now, let me use a few examples …
We’ve had more than 75 Peterson Aran 999s. We’ve had 64 Aran 999 P-Lips. These are all the different pictures, all the different descriptions. Now, that is one shape / finish combination with one of two stem count possibilities. The other ones have that too. We don’t use one picture of a Peterson Aran 999 to represent all Peterson Aran 999s. Every single pipe is photographed individually. The photo you see on the site is the exact pipe you are buying. You’re buying the pipe you’re looking at in the photo, not a representative example of an Aran 999 P-Lip.
We can take one picture and swap 64 Peterson Aran 999 P-Lips with that one picture, but we took 64 pictures.
PM.com: How many pipes do you have in stock right now?
SW: 3,500 to 4,000. Not a lot relative to how many we sell.
PM.com: Well, you were saying before that you run an almost just in time inventory, but that’s on the tobacco.
SW: It’s on tobacco. It’s a little easier with tobacco. New pipes, estate pipes, it’s a little bit different, especially the estate pipes. We’ve got almost like a manufacturing chain on the estate pipes because they have to be cleaned and then go through the merchandising process.
The merchandising process is almost, it’s almost factory-like in that it has sub components and it is a business process and pipes all go through it and it takes a certain amount of time. So we need enough time in there to have the pipes on hand for processing.
On the website right now, we’ve got about 1,500 to 1,600 pipes on the website. And that, what’s on the website, is about how many we sell in a month. And then we have about that much again not on the website that’s finding its way through the process, our process. Right now, we also have a big chunk of estates, more than what we normally would have because we’re coming off the Chicago show and a large estate purchase [smiling directly at the interviewer, Kevin].
PM.com: I heard about that [smiling back knowingly].
[Editor’s note: This is a joking side-remark that we will let our readers in on. PipesMagazine.com owner, Kevin Godbee, brokered a sale of over 500 estate pipes from Aaron Spelling’s collection to SmokingPipes.com during the Chicago Pipe Show.]
PM.com: Aside from handling every pipe individually, what else differentiates SmokingPipes.com from other online pipe retailers?
SW: We love pipes. They are not just a product. We’re serious about pipes. And we write about pipes and we think about pipes and we discuss pipes. And there are no other websites on the internet that have the kind of depth of pipe discussion that we have. It’s just not out there. If you read a bunch of smokingpipes.com descriptions, and then you go somewhere else … First of all, you’ll probably discover that there aren’t any at that other place and if they are there, it’s very, very nuts and bolts.
PM.com: Many sites probably have a description that was taken from the manufacturers catalog, and you guys inspect the pipe individually and write your own description.
SW: We have subjective information, we have objective information too, the measurements, whether it has a filter or not. Stem material, the shape is somewhat objective.
And then we have our editorial content, the photos serve dual purposes, but we’ll talk about that in a second but the writing itself is, is what we think of stuff. It’s our overlay in that artistic discussion, in that creative discussion and that is very different from anywhere else.
The photos are also interpretive at some level. All photography is interpretive at some level and so there we’re also participating in that discussion. We put a very serious premium on high quality pipe photography. We have a photo journalist that has worked for magazines and newspapers that does pipe photography for us.
PM.com: You guys have excellent photography.
SW: Well, thank you. And we have two guys [photographer and photo editor], and that’s what they do every day, week in, week out. That’s all they do. I mean periodically, Bobby takes pictures of a lot of things around here but that’s like two hours of work a week. It’s like, Oh, Bobby, we need a picture of this and the rest is all pipes. So everything merchandised individually, editorial is very important to us.
Our role in this whole process is interpretive and it’s providing content to surround and package these pipes in. And participating in the dialogue between pipe maker and customer, and I won’t say framing that artistic dialogue because we don’t really, the pipe maker and customer do. But adding an editorial overlay that helps people to understand what’s going on. So that’s big difference number two.
The rest of the big differences are mostly business related. From a corporate culture perspective, we’re a bizarre-hybrid of dot.com and old pipe retailer … and it’s kind of strange … I mean at times that we are both of these things simultaneously.
But our backend systems are very sophisticated. We have the inventory ratios, we have very, very fast order processing times. If you place an order with us by 2:00 pm, outside of exceptional circumstances, it’s going out the same day. And that’s not because we don’t have anything better to do.
That is the most important thing we do, but it’s not because we got one order that day. It’s because the supply chain is extremely efficient and our internal business processes are extremely efficient.
Skill and ability of course is another big difference. Most pipe shops have skill, ability issues, because it requires product knowledge that is hard to impart to people that don’t have it. And it requires all of these different skills. And so we just treated it like a business you break these things out, you subdivide them, you create processes to organize workflows. And that is well perfectly typical of the rest of the business world but somewhat atypical of the pipe world.
Kevin: Did I tell you about the book, “The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement”?
Sykes: You did, yes.
Kevin: You’ve got to check it out.
Sykes: Great, will do.
Kevin: I guarantee you’ll like it.
Sykes: I love business processes. Business processes are fun. Not many people say that, honestly but…
Kevin: Yes, well, you know when it’s a business that you’re into.
Sykes: Yes, because I mean at the end of the day, our goal is to get awesome pipes shipped to customers. I mean, you know it’s get the right pipe to the right guy. And we’re constantly trying to do it better.