Bet most people couldn't really see any parallels between the crafting industry and entrepreneurship before reading this article.
If you’re an aspiring entrepreneur, you probably draw inspiration from your industry’s leaders, the start-up scene, and a handful of your favorite CEOs.
But there’s another source that has valuable lessons to offer, too: crafters. That’s right—knitters, sewers, paper makers, painters, and other independent crafting entrepreneurs have a big story to tell about small business success.
In recent years, the handmade movement has been undeniably explosive. A decade ago, crafters first found their forum selling at large-scale fairs like Boston’s Bazaar Bizarre and on Etsy, the internet’s best known storefront for the crafty consumer. Today, Etsy, which now sells everything from artisan-farmed San Marzano tomatoes to hand-tooled high fashion leather, has an estimated 800,000 sellers, sales totaling $224.7 million, and over one billion page views monthly.
So even if you’ve never touched a pair of knitting needles and think a silkscreen might be something that goes on a window, the craft industry deserves more than just your passing glance. We sat down with some heavy hitters in the handmade world to hear about what entrepreneurs can learn from these ambitious artisans.
Get to Know Business Basics (Even if it’s Not Your Strength)
You’ve probably got some serious skills in your arsenal if you’re considering going it on your own, but they might not include balancing a budget or doing your taxes. But prowess with a paintbrush (or any unique skill) probably won’t pay your rent unless you learn the brass tacks of business, too.
“Creative-minded folk aren’t usually the best at the business side of things,” admits Kelly Rand, program director for HelloCraft, a non-profit connecting crafters to resources that “demystify business speak.” But setting aside this intimidation is essential, says Delilah Snell, co-producer of the indie business conference Craftcation. “People are embarrassed to ask questions, but everyone has the same ones—what does wholesale mean? How do I pay taxes? When people are scared, that’s when they are taken advantage of.”
If the “business” side of business isn’t your strong suit, keep in mind that you’re not alone—many entrepreneurs are in exactly the same boat. But don’t let that hold you back, either. Learn the basics, don’t be afraid to ask questions (even if you think they’re totally obvious), and seek out help when you need it.
Social Media is Your Friend
Any start-up looking to create brand buzz on a budget should steal a page out of the handmade industry’s playbook—a crafter’s most powerful tool may be a Singer sewing machine, but social networking comes in a close second.
Nicole Stevenson, clothing designer and co-producer of Craftcation, says that “marketing on a shoestring” is the key to handmade entrepreneurs’ success. To promote their products and build their brands online, crafters do everything from learning HTML and building their own websites to keeping up with industry news, blogging, tweeting, and Facebooking 24/7 to building a presence on new sites like Pinterest. They know firsthand that social networking isn’t about throwing up a static Facebook page: It’s an ever-evolving, never-ending task—and it’s the only way to build your business.
Don’t Underestimate Your Education
Sure, an MBA from top-tier school can’t hurt you, but what’s equally as important is the business education you can get outside of the classroom: industry-specific conferences, meetings, and events. Take Craftcation as your inspiration—the conference provides Q&A sessions with industry professionals interspersed with how-to crafting demos and mixers designed to help crafters network. HelloCraft also hosts a slew of web-based instructional blogs and podcasts, field trips to see crafting commerce in action, as well as its own spin on the buttoned-up business conference, The Summit of Awesome. The 2010 Summit featured all-star speakers and three days of hard-core trade topics like developing an electronic press packet, online marketing mistakes, and protecting one’s creative work through copyright.
Find the major educational or networking events in your field—and strongly consider participating in them. You might not think you have cash to spare on trips and classes, but take it from anyone who’s ever attended The Summit—the payoff more than makes up for the expense.
Follow Your Heart
We’re all on a quest for contentment—to do something daily that we enjoy and believe in. But whether your special skills rest in t-shirt design or real estate, any start-up can take a cue from the core ethos of indie art entrepreneurship. “It has to do with a quality of life. Working in a handmade career, you set your own hours and your own expectations for success… It’s about being your own boss and driving your own success,” says Rand. “Today, people are re-examining their career choices and wanting something fulfilling.”
Striking out on your own isn’t for everyone—but for some, there’s no other choice. And if that’s you, and you’re going into business for yourself—why not choose a business that lets you follow your dreams? If you’re nervous about getting your feet wet, just think: There are plenty of others who have gone before you.