Whether to Share Your Knowledge Locally

Woodworkers discuss whether the type of knowledge they willingly exchange on a forum should be shared with local acquaintances. September 27, 2012

Last week a friend and fellow wood professional asked me about a locally unusual finishing product that I use. I told him, then suggested that I could quote it for him, partially because the finish is mostly process (as opposed to material) and partially because it bothered me that he would ask for a "trade secret".

Now, of course, the only thing that bothers me about the situation is that I was begrudging of information that I would give more freely to strangers. I've been participating with this forum for many years now, and have always felt that good advice shared can only increase the public's familiarity with and demand for good work.

Shouldn't this apply more beneficially to advice given locally? I've often found good advice, and fresh perspectives here, so I think that it's a fitting question to ask of the WOODWEB public: is it easier to give away your expertise to strangers? What are your experiences with similar situations? Can you find any benefit to being as forthcoming locally as here?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor z:
Two people using the same material or even the same process will not guarantee the same quality of finished work. In my opinion, if the person I share my information with can do better work, than I need to learn from then and raise my standards. Several ex-employees have gone off and opened their own studios. Good for them I say, I'm glad I was part of their success.

From contributor J:
"Can you find any benefit to being as forthcoming locally as here?" The most obvious benefit would be that sharing helps you maintain a mutually beneficial, idea-sharing relationship with your friend. Does he not share ideas and experiences with you?

You could easily be overvaluing your trade secret. Your real assets are probably your skills, experience, work ethic and reputation. Next to those things, some secret idea you have about how to achieve a particular finishing effect probably doesn't count for much.

From the original questioner:
Yes - the "trade secret" part is tongue-in-cheek. I am interested in increasing exposure to quality work in my area, as a business strategy. The best way to do this is through normal operations, but, to this end, I have also maintained openness towards my competitors. I'm not talking about collusion, really just the same kind of free help that goes on here. In a healthy market, I've found this practice beneficial, but in this more restricted market, it seems to work against my interests. Is it reasonable to look at this as a sort of investment? Or should I follow my nerves and consider my "trade secrets" as such?

From contributor Y:
The subject of secrets has come up here before. Most likely your secret is not new, perhaps not well known. Fine results are usually based on skill rather than secret processes or ingredients. Before I had a production shop I made one-off furniture. People would ask what my secret was for the finish. No secret, it was a variation on French polish using modern resins, oils and solvents and a stupid amount of labor. Did I mention all the mistakes I made before I got the process down? No secret, lots of learning.

From contributor U:
I am certainly guilty of sharing certain information with strangers more freely than with a local or someone I may know personally. I believe the root of this is that I do not feel threatened by someone in another area (hence he would be a stranger) using something I gave them, if they choose to compete with me. This has been done by me without even realizing it, until I read this post. That being said, there are some things I would probably never share.

I use a self-written spreadsheet that is a work in progress of over 20 years, I would never give this to anyone. Certain parts of it yes, but never the entire thing. I consider this software to be a vital tool in my arsenal. I wouldnít give away any other useful tool like my table saw either. I believe that techniques are a little different and that maybe any process or technique is better appreciated by the amount of effort used in acquiring it.

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
How about telling him that you will share your trade secret with him if he shares one of his with you? That is kind of what is happening here at WOODWEB - lots of people are taking time and sharing.

From contributor C:
I am self-taught for the most part and other than intuition, trial/error, and the internet I have learned much from simply asking my fellows in the trade. Itís a rough business to be in and most of the trade secrets really just add up to experience. I think we improve our selves when we share on the other hand if itís something that no one else has or knows and this is what brings the clients to you, you should keep it to yourself!

From contributor L:
When I first started I visited a local seasoned professional. He told me that woodworkers would happy to share everything they knew with you except two things. Where they get their wood and how much they make. I have found this to be mostly true.