Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Crafty marketing - www.newsobserver.com

Triangle artisans create a community and drum up business through an online mall called Etsy

I own a craft shop.

It has no walls, no fixtures, no employees.

Of course, if you go there -- knitwrit.etsy.com -- you'll find there's not much of anything at all right now. But there could be, just as soon as I dream it up.

The "mall" where my shop is goes by the name Etsy. It's an international online sales venue, started in June 2005, that deals exclusively in hand-crafted goods.

Buyers can browse without those sweaty blisters you get roaming crafts markets. Sellers need not pay for the infrastructure -- rent, utilities, hardware -- of traditional stores. And they can sell a single craft item, something an actual store can rarely support. They focus on what they do best: crafting.

Etsy encourages its crafters -- or Etsians -- to locate their sales base so it's easy for buyers to stay local. Etsy also encourages networking among local crafters through the formation of "street teams," which have the power to turn a virtual community into an actual community.

"It's the world's best-kept secret," says Meg Finn, proprietor of VintageScraps.etsy.com. "The team is really cool."

Finn, 45, a former middle school teacher who lives in Apex, opened her shop Jan. 24 and has joined two street teams: Boomers and Beyond (for age 40-plus Etsians) and NCTriangle.

The NCTriangle Street Team is made up of about 125 Triangle Etsy crafters. Formed in September 2007, it meets about four times a year to brainstorm ways to market members' crafts locally, and it meets monthly to make a craft. Online, team members take turns writing a Friday blog, to give exposure to individual crafts while sharing the work to keep the site vital.

Many of the team members spend hours alone creating. Through the team, they not only network in real time, expanding business opportunities, but also find a support network of like-minded people who find their greatest joy in creating.

Some Etsians aim to make a living from crafts; others are indulging hobbies. A wide spectrum are simply augmenting their income and exploring their craft.

Craft in real time

In May, about 20 NCTriangle Street Team members convened at Karen LeRose's North Raleigh home. On the business end, they floated ideas about actual crafts venues -- North Hills Farmers Market, Designers Downtown Market, Rock & Shop Market, all in Raleigh -- and about how to find low-cost, effective advertising. They swapped business cards and brainstormed about crafty marketing.

Then they learned to make candles, one of LeRose's crafts. As the wax was melting, minds were melding as the Etsians scoped out LeRose's basement workshop.

Though the Etsy shop does not require walls, it does require some infrastructure at home. A clear, dedicated space is ideal. Especially important is a place to take studio-quality pictures; product shots can make or break sales.

LeRose repurposed a workshop area with pegboard and work tables for Karen's Soaps (karenssoaps.etsy.com). Her soap molds are organized in bins, as are her completed soaps. She has packaging material and a small stove for heating her soaps and candles. Her aromatic oils are arranged in bottles on a shelf. LeRose gets all the scents for her soaps and candles online.

"Took six tries to get the right pear," she said. "I don't want to sell it if they don't smell good."

And for product shots, she has a light box -- a white canvas cube with a light -- that allows close, well-lighted images of her products.

LeRose has a full-time job, so she spends two to three hours a day filling orders and making the products. She enjoys the craft and the extra income.

"If it gets to be a chore, I'll stop," she says.

Jenn George Burt, 33, works full time as well, but all three of her jobs are based in her Raleigh home.

"Most days I never go out," she says. "I sit around in pajamas a lot."

In addition to her Etsy work, Burt is a Web designer and an online technician for the N.C. State University math department. Burt has three shops on Etsy. Her main shop, jenngee.etsy.com, developed from a longtime love of quilting, from which she happened upon her main sales item: the coffee corset, a band of fabric that laces around a coffee cup and looks just like a corset. She has sold 672 Coffee Corsets at $12 each since opening in August 2007.

"Who knew!" she says. At another shop, SmallWonderful.etsy.com, she makes and sells clothes for Blythe dolls, filling a cultish need to attire the bigheaded Barbie-ish figure. At isupply.etsy.com, she sells craft supplies, "stuff you didn't even know you needed," such as fabric yo-yos and tiny straw hats. A whole floor of the home she shares with her husband is a dedicated studio.

"I don't think I could go back to a normal job," Burt says.

The pottery and the power

Michele Marlin, 44, devotes her whole workday to her craft.

After getting a degree in production pottery about 20 years ago at Montgomery Community College in Troy, she sold her work in galleries and at shops. She also worked for eight years at Amazing Glaze in downtown Raleigh, until it closed.

She opened up her Etsy shop in January 2007 and slapped up a bumper sticker on her pickup truck: memekiwii.etsy.com. Her Etsy shop provides more traffic than her Web site (www.funkyfolkartpottery.com), she said.

In addition to selling wares, she is developing a network of animal-loving friends through her buyers. She "batches" photo shoots, taking pictures of her products in the kudzu field outside her Angier studio.

"Etsy has helped make me a better potter," she says, by allowing her to work in her own time. She will throw for a while, fire the pots, then close up shop and paint for two or three months.

"I like to stay behind the scene," she says. "I love to be creative, and I love mud, and I love fire."

Most important, she says, Etsy empowered her to really think of herself as an artist.

This empowerment fuels all the crafters.

"Etsy saved my life," says Tina Jett, a Carolina Rollergirl (Red Mojo) who has a lot of crafty urges -- pendants made from manipulated Scrabble tiles, felting, photography -- and hasn't quite settled on a single craft.

In August 2007, she opened scatterbox.etsy.com and added photobox.etsy.com in February. She has a degree in advertising and has worked grown-up jobs, but at age 34 all she knows is: "I don't want a real job." On Etsy, she saw: "You know what? People actually do this for a living."

Jett, like many Etsians, sells wares at craft shows as well. The Street Team gave her support in person and online to get her crafts together for her first craft market: July's Designers Downtown Market.

"On our message board, when there's an upcoming show posted, we usually ask who is planning to be in it," she says. "I mentioned that I was thinking about it and heard from some well-wishers and from a couple of others who were pretty new to it, too. ...

"I had been reading some other posts on our forum a few months prior where people talked about what to expect at shows and tips on preparing. So by the time I signed up, I had a lot planned out."

The real-time craft sales gave her enough money to cover her entry and material, with a little left over. But more important, it helped her focus her craft. She found out what people were interested in buying, perhaps more quickly than she would at Etsy.

"I had really good feedback, especially on my photography, which was inspiring," she said. "Between the two faces of my store, photography vs. arts and crafts, it's the one that has more of a defined direction."

Vast network

Some Etsians join the team just for the networking.

Aggie Stachura (linguafranca.etsy.com) of Chapel Hill has an Etsy shop, but she doesn't sell a product. As a buyer, she is interested in keeping her craft local, purchasing supplies such as roving, the processed wool used for spinning yarn. Stachura loves the forum and virtual community on Etsy.

"I've spent the past two months exploring Etsy and gradually figuring out how to navigate the site," she said.

Etsy helps with navigating, including a video to help buyers. It's possible to hop on the site and find what you're looking for pretty quickly. But it's also possible to spend quite a bit of time threading through the forums.

Active Street Teams help buyers and sellers by making their presence known locally. At the group's July meeting at Scrap Exchange in Durham, the NCTriangle Street Team created sample crafts for Scrap Exchange in Durham.

Finn brought her daughter, Amy, 12.

"She's our test market," Finn says. "She's going to tell us if people can actually make all these things."

Finn started her sales in an actual shop: Out of the Kiln in Apex, where she first brought her cards, made of vintage paper products she inherited from her grandmother. At the shop, she was tipped off to Etsy.

She calls this post-retirement foray into crafts "basically a big midlife crisis."

"I'm having a ball," she says. "I can't believe I get paid for it."

Together, the team members create a pile of crafts, write up directions on file folders and leave it all to inspire shop visitors.

The final touch for the items is a sign that says: Made by the Etsy NCTriangle Street Team.

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