Bursting the Maker Bubble: Part 3

By Regina Connell.


Last round, we talked about what’s really changed since this latest maker fetish began. There was the rise of the conscious consumer; a new focus on identity and making known the identity of the artisan; the rise of artisan oriented stores and brands; the failure of the market; and the lingering problem with quality.

Now we talk about what this means, and what to do about it. For the artisan who wants to grow their livelihood, but remain handcrafted and small scale (and that is a choice), it’s time to embrace who your customer really is and act accordingly.

The bottom line: it’s time to break free of the tribe. In the world of artisanal work, I’ve come across several tribes that don’t seem to want to have a whole lot to do with each other. There are the Craft Traditionalists, who focus on selling at craft shows and on sites primarily to “craft collectors.” There’s what I call the Designer Artisans. They avoid craft shows like the plague and sell only to high-end stores or through dealers to interior decorators and/or their clients.

And there are a few who are able to straddle both worlds with aplomb, whose work appeals to an affluent mainstream: people whose jewelry or furniture or ceramics, for example, are as happy in the pages of Vogue or Elle Decor, as in American Craft magazine.

It’s not just differences in business models or marketing techniques but a cultural, political  and even (dare I say it), a class-based one. However, if we really want to make the world a safer place for handcrafted work, get handcrafted work into the hands of more people, and create better livelihoods for artisans, we have to find our way through all that.

And the biggest challenge will be for the craft traditionalists but it’s also the biggest opportunity: the market for beautiful things that happen to be handcrafted is a lot larger than the market for craft sold as “craft.” So what does that take?

Come to grips with who your real customer is.  You probably already know that your core customer—the one who is going to sustain your business and help it grow—is going to be one of those people with lots of disposable income. In many cases, your most natural customer may be in that 1–2%. But they are the ones who value, and will demand and pay for the best of the best in handmade work.

Out of this high income segment, your best customers will be the ones who get the value and the magic and the humanity of handmade and can pay for it, but they are not ideologues. There will, of course, be those who stretch to buy what you make, and that is wonderful and they should not be ignored. But it’s not where the real core of your customers will be.

And it’s not enough to know roughly who they are. What do they worry about? (Ans: time, aging, their kids) What are their joys? (Experiences, creativity, beauty, individuality.) What gives them pleasure at a deep level? (Ditto.) Who do they want to be at a deep level? (Ans: more like you.) What restaurants do they go to… what sites and magazines influence them… who are their icons… where do they shop? You get the idea. Get as specific as possible. You might even be inspired by them.

Knowing who your customers are helps you create work that might appeal to them. Yes, there is always that all-important dance between what you want to make and what the market wants: yes it is hard. (See this fabulous piece by Kyle Studstill here.) But if you have quality, a unique and passionate point of view, and some tenacity it can be done.

Aim high. Avoid the middle market: it is always dangerous because it requires a dumbing down of quality and a massive increase in time you spend marketing. Instead, focus on customers who expect value and are willing to pay for it. Value yourself and what you do: be unapologetic that what you make is exceptional and should cost accordingly. If you need to, make high quality, lower priced items for that high end customer, but stay focused on them.

If you reach a point where you want to expand your market, be careful. It’s easier to move downmarket once you’ve established a strong reputation for exceptional work (and price accordingly). But be warned that there are legions of companies that struggle mightily once they do move to the masses. If you want to grow, consider a side business like teaching or consulting or a retail arm (selling others’ work) to supplement your income from your core artisan work. Don’t cheapen what you do or how you do it.

And if you’re an idealist and do want to serve the less affluent because it shouldn’t be all about the richer people, go for it. But it’s hard to make a decent living doing handmade work when you’re looking at a customer segment that doesn’t have a lot of disposable income. If you do find that way, though, let me know and I will send you a case of artisanal beer.

Quality is not enough. You must have something different to say with what you’re making. If you are going to make, say, a cutting board, it must be extraordinary, sophisticated, eye-poppingly great. Perhaps it’s a proportion that’s particularly sumptuous like that of Silvia Song‘s; or an inlay that’s unusual, like that of Jacob May; a technique that most people haven’t seen; a feature that makes it extra special, a secret signature, or, most ephemerally (a surprising, compelling inspiration—not nature, since everyone uses that—that makes the product special). Quiet is lovely, wabi sabi is wonderful, but for the higher end customer, it needs to be simply extraordinary.

Unlearn everything you’ve heard about marketing #1: You can’t Instagram your way to greatness. It’s nice, it’s helpful, but all this instagramming takes a lot of effort. If you want to be a social media star, great. But it sure takes time out of making awesome work and sharing it with people who want what you make.

Unlearn everything you’ve heard about marketing #2: YOUR story isn’t as important as you think. It’s become almost trite to lead with story: soulful dude/girl ditches job in an investment bank/management consulting/fill in the blank to live the dream and design furniture/jewelry/craft beer.

I personally love this kind of thing, but I’ve been rethinking this. While it can be “cool” or “interesting,” it’s just not enough. You have to lead with your work: that is your identity. Let the work have the backstory, not the maker, not unless there’s something so relevant or so extraordinary about it. THEN bring out that lovely backstory to close the deal.

Unlearn everything you’ve heard about marketing #3: Don’t lead with craft. While some people will be hunting for “crafted” or “artisanal” or “local” work, the vast majority of people will be wanting something beautiful, functional, well made. The closest they get to the notion of “crafted” will be if they want something that isn’t available everywhere.  To reiterate: lead with beauty, extraordinary function, and exceptional quality.

Forget the web. Unless you have a brand, or unless your works are sold through a site known for its exceptional “curatorial” skills like the UK’s OEN and a handful of others like it around the world, your work needs to be seen in person. It is the nature of handmade.

Learn to love the middleman again. It’s lovely and hugely more profitable to sell direct when you can. Unfortunately, the last few years never really created a way for makers to reach customers without some middleman, primarily because of the nature of great, handcrafted product.

It doesn’t have to be like this forever, but intermediaries will help you build your brand, your portfolio, and your bank account. Just make sure that you retain exclusive rights over a few of your best designs. That way you can begin to build your own brand separate from that of the intermediary.

Find the right middleman: go where your customers are. That means hunting for galleries and showrooms that carry things and cater to customers you think your work could appeal to. Where would your ideal customer shop? STOP relying on selling through stores and shows that only sell high end craft to traditional “craft” audiences. As we said in Part 2, your customers are hanging out at places like Barney’s or hanging out online at 1st Dibs or Artsy.

Go for broader but still high-end, design-led lifestyle stores (The Gardener in the Bay Area, Garde in LA, ABC Home in NYC)  that sell a mix of goods from handmade to indie (not necessarily handmade by a couple of artisans in a studio) with a sprinkling of quality mass made (as long as the taste level is high.) Your work will stand out.

If you want to do trade shows (and they are expensive) go for West Edge on the west coast, or Wanted on the east coast,  or bite the bullet and go for ICFF in New York.

And oh by the way, the RIGHT intermediary is also someone who doesn’t just private label your goods. They allow your identity to come to the fore: if there’s one thing that has happened in the last few years, it’s the increased interest in the artisan.

Create your own way. And I don’t mean a website or slot on some version of Etsy. As we discussed last time around, we need more third ways between the mass and the ultra glamorous. there are a few stores that show the work of independent makers: the world needs more of them, though each with a distinct point of view, please.

If you have the taste and the guts to do retail, create your own showroom where you can show not just your work, but the work of others as well. Show your work in context: paint a picture of how it would work in the lives of your customers.

Extending the create your own showroom concept, (and if you’re living in a place with reasonable commercial rents) go in with others and create a cooperative where you sell each others’ work. Choose carefully where you put it: it can’t be out of the way, but has to be in an area where the affluent mainstream shops.

Create your own studio complex. (Always helpful to even out the cash flow.) Use it as a launch pad of educational events, rent out the space, make it pay for itself but make sure to insist on quality. Ditto the point about locating it in a mainstream area.

Or maybe create a pop up in a mainstream store or trade show and convince them that there’s a demand for what you make.

So there you have it. Yes, there will be differences depending on whether you’re making jewelry, furniture, but that’s my take on what’s on the other side of the maker bubble. There is opportunity: it’s all about looking differently at how to go after them. There is so much amazing talent out there: it’s time to get it into the right hands.


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