July 5, 2011
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about people I know who are independent artisans, inventors and makers. For example, take 90% of the people who sell on Etsy, or lots of the people you see who run small crafts shops, or people who have portfolios on services like Carbonmade. There are and lots of design blogs that showcase these people’s work, and magazines like Craft and Make that cater to them.
I’m even thinking of sites like Instructables, where people come up with cheap ways to accomplish things yourself that you might not otherwise have been able to do. (I’m wondering whether I should include people who do this as a hobby vs. those who do it as a profession, and I guess I will for now).
I’ve been wondering about ways to serve these people, who often appear to know lots about their craft but relatively little about the business mechanics that could help them sell more and sell more efficiently. For example, here’s an Etsy group called Etsy Success that helps members with selling; here’s an article on Craft Zine about starting a craft business. A lot of articles and books (there are many books) about this topic are surprisingly basic - the concept of a business plan is explained, for example. I should note that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this basicness.
Is there a problem to be solved?
** **It could easily be argued that independent makers (that’s what I will call this group for now) are actually relatively well-served by the current systems of (a) disseminating information and (b) establishing what I would call “commerce mechanics” such as setting up a shop or accepting payments.
If I come up with a product idea today and believe in it, there are lots of storefront services I can use, such as Shopify, Etsy, and eBay that will handle a lot of the work for me. Google makes it easy to find information and advice on setting up a small business, and there’s a wealth of books on Amazon that address this topic in-depth as well, though many of these are focused on crafters rather than other types of artisans or inventors. If I want to do marketing, there’s of course word-of-mouth and another more traditional techniques, or I can buy ads on Google AdWords, set up social networking accounts, etc. By all accounts it’s a lot easier today to set up a creative business than it was fifteen years ago.
Also, it could be argued that many creative people perhaps don’t want to produce and sell huge quantities of their work; that the current state of affairs is not a blockage to more and more diverse creative output. Because the barriers to commercialization are so low, the absence of large-scale acceptance or production of an idea suggests that it isn’t in high demand, not that it is being artificially kept out of the marketplace.
Still, I find it strange that on the one hand, there seems to be a lot of demand for, and interest in, handmade goods, creative ideas, and unique design solutions, and on the other hand (a) many of the ideas you read about on e.g. blogs never make it to production, (b) many good ideas never even make it to e.g. blogs to be read about, and © many of the makers I have met run their businesses suboptimally and therefore haven’t achieved the reach or influence they might otherwise be able to.
Selling services for makers? Business education? Something else?
I suppose this next section assumes that I’ve made a case that there is a problem. I’m aware of this assumption, and I think I haven’t proved it fully. But I’ll continue to assume for now that products (and profits) are being lost because being a creative person and a businessperson at the same time is not that easy.
And I think, more generally, you could make a case that allowing creative people to focus more on their craft and less on an AdWords campaign is probably value-adding, especially if you can find a way to do this without causing a maker to lose touch with their customers.
But I’m wondering how something like this could be done. I’ve thought of a couple of ideas:
Some kind of content / social networking hub that’s focused on creators. The content that would be provided is pretty basic business stuff - collecting and disseminating advice on how to write a simple marketing plan, or lessons from authors on various business-y topics. And then a set of forums that allows people to exchange advice and suggestions, and possibly even the possibility to team up to open up shops together.
Marketing software. There are lots of avenues for creators to promote and sell their work. On the selling end, three venues that come to mind are Etsy, eBay, and independent Shopify shops, though if I thought for a minute I could probably name another dozen marketplaces that cater to independent creators (e.g. Unbound and even fundraising sites like Kickstarter and IndieGogo). Then there are advertising programs and other ways to do marketing as well. But what’s the best bang for the buck? If you’ve decided to sell on Etsy, of course Etsy will advise you to continue selling on Etsy. But is that really the best solution for all types of creators?
A site that allows seamless switching between a portfolio and a shop - think a cross between Etsy and Carbonmade. The idea would be that you set up a portfolio, which perhaps we even provide for free. Every maker I know does this (or should). But what if you could click a button and convert your portfolio into a marketplace? To make it really valuable, however, I do think you need to provide the other types of advice and help that I mentioned above.
I’m really interested in the creative economy, and I’m looking for ways to help it grow. I also think that, inevitably, we will buy more things - or perhaps more of the things we like - from independent producers or from sources that are strongly influenced by them. It strikes me as a problem, as well, that to make it in this business you have to combine business sense and creative sense, which I think is probably rare. And I’m a biz monkey with deep affection for independent creativity. I’d love to hear any ideas that anyone else has.