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A Fine Point on Pricing

Behold the artisanally sharpened pencil.

For $15, cartoonist and artisanal pencil sharpener David Rees will select a pencil for you; sharpen it, lovingly; package it in a handsome protective tube; and send it to you along with a certificate of authenticity and a bag of the shavings.

Put-on? Capitalism at its finest? In an entertaining (and occasionally profane) interview with GQ, Rees insists that what he's doing is more the latter than the former:

It's a real thing! I've sharpened like, getting up on 475 [pencils]. I've made money doing this. It's not just like a silly--it's not like I built the website and then didn't build up the business. I did it, and I invested in my tools, and I learned a [remarkable amount] about pencils. ... I did my research. I learned a lot about pencils. So it's not a goof. It's a real thing.

Yes, its a real thing---further proof that, as they say, the appropriate price for something is what somebody is willing to pay for it. It reminds me of a familiar conversation in association circles about pricing: As a 2010 Associations Now feature pointed out, industry-specific goods and services can be sold at a premium because there's nowhere else to get them.

But are you sure that what you're selling is so special? I don't think any reader of this blog needs another lecture about how the internet has upended meetings, education, membership, and more, but Rees' enterprise has left me wondering how many associations have taken the uncomfortable but necessary step to study what those shifts have meant for their pricing. It may be that a lot of those comfortable revenue drivers are slowly but surely becoming the equivalent of artisanally sharpened pencils---nice enough for what they are, and the result of lots of careful effort to be sure, but easily found at a much lower cost elsewhere.

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