Should I Relaunch My Business?

Should I Relaunch My Business?
by Donald Clark

Courtesy of Handmade Business

I was operating part - time in the handmade arena from 1991--2002, doing the vast majority of my business traveling to and displaying at small-to-midsize retail shows in the South. After a 13 - year hiatus, I am strongly considering reviving my business. What, in your opinion, are the biggest changes I can expect to see since my departure in 2002, and how can I best adapt to these changes in order to relaunch a profitable business?

- Joy Cunning

Numerous facets of the handmade marketplace have changed over the past decade, many of them good for the field and the maker, and a few that challenge the maker to work harder to be successful. There are certainly more craftspeople competing for display space in shows. This means you'll have to submit carefully styled images. It's essential to use a professional photographer for images and a good printer for any printing. Many show producers now use online companies that collect applications and prepare them for the jury process. The jurying process itself is also increasingly done online, often meaning the jurors work alone. It appears the tight competition for space has raised the level of the work the public sees, which is good for our field.

Once you've been accepted to a show, the competition doesn't stop. You'll need to set about creating a booth designed to highlight your work, pull the visitors in, and turn them into buyers. You'll have to evaluate every choice you make--from booth color to lighting, from display furniture to carpet. Once they're in the booth, you'll have to en-gage visitors with stories about your work and indirectly tell them why they should buy it. The quality of printed materials (your artist card, price lists, and artist statements) also matters, and these items have to be available for visitors to take away.

I also think the field has become increasingly influenced by and responds to trends and fashion. Although you don't want to be chasing trends, it can't hurt to be aware of the choices the public is making for household items and wearables. This change may be due to the shifting demographic of the buyers. Many of the original supporters of handmade are now older, unfortunately buying less and making more sophisticated choices when they do. These are the people who bought handmade because they responded to the look and wanted to support the maker--theirs are the dollars that drove the market in the second half of the last century. On the other hand, the younger buyers entering the market seem to be motivated by different factors. I call them the ''problem solvers.'' They need a mug, a set of glasses, a sweater, or a gift and want their choices to stand out from the crowd.

Without a doubt, however, the biggest change you'll encounter is the influence the Internet has had on our field. Many makers now have their own websites and sell directly from them, eliminating the need to travel and pay for shows. Their "booths" are open to the world 24/7. In the same idea, the Internet has also allowed buyers to learn about our field and shop around in their pajamas. You might want to consider placing some of your items online in some way.

With all of these changes I've mentioned, here's what hasn't changed: The handmade community continues to be a welcoming place, with craftspeople willing to share, support, and care about their fellow makers.

Can you define the criteria for something to be considered truly "handmade"?

- Katrina Ramsey

Certainly this is not a silly question, but one without an easy answer. Right off the bat I'm thinking ''handmade'' and how it relates to ''made by hand'' comes to mind--is there a difference? I think the two terms are part of the same concept. There may be a difference in intent implied by each word: handmade is a description of the product, while made by hand speaks of the process. ''The basket is handmade,'' versus "the basket was made by hand.'' Ok, so we need to know what made by hand encompasses so we can get a handle on handmade.

This is where it gets tricky. The next question is: How made by hand does an item have to be to be handmade? Clearly to be handmade, an item needs to be made by hand, or at least some of it. Nearly every craft media requires tools: the loom, the glass furnace, the potter's wheel, the sewing machine, and the jeweler's torch. I really can't think of an object that is totally made by hand, perhaps maybe a pinch pot or a finger weaving? There are tools or machines involved in almost all craft processes! We still call the item handmade, no doubt because a human being is holding the tool, directing the machine, and manipulating the material.

Many craftspeople purchase some components that are not handmade, or not made by them. Do you know anyone who makes their own zippers or pours their own jewelry settings? This will be an ongoing problem for the made-by-hand purists and could go on and on. Does the weaver have to spin the wool, the potter have to dig the clay? Of course not--this is no longer a required component of made by hand, although it once was by necessity. Today there is little that is made by hand from start to finish.

Perhaps the intentions of the makers and the perceptions of the consumers have a role to play here. The majority of craftspeople have control over the process, from the design to the production of their pieces in their studios. We tend to call the items they make in small quantities handmade. They are perceived by the consumer as being special, unlike the impersonal items made in large batches entirely by machines. Many of us like the idea that an item is special and not one of many. I also believe we make purchases of handmade items because we feel a connection to the maker--a person--who is not an impersonal machine. We choose to support the person.

Etsy, the largest online marketplace for handmade goods, has a broader view of what is handmade. On Oct. 1, 2013, Etsy chief executive Chad Dickerson held an online town hall meeting. According to the Etsy website, he announced that Etsy ''would now permit factory-made goods and drop shipping, provided the seller either designed or hired designers of the items, disclosed to Etsy their factory, disclosed that they used factories and took ‘ownership' of the process.'' This certainly opens the door to more competition for the craftspeople who have a shop there.

Yes, the high--end designer shoes from Italy were made by hand, well actually many hands, each doing a specific part of the process. There is clearly a difference between studio handmade and factory handmade. How about this set of criteria for studio handmade? Made by one person in limited quantities using tools that are manipulated by hand.

Donald Clark is the author of Making a Living in Crafts and was a partner in Ferrin Gallery for 25 years. In addition to writing, he is currently a consultant to artists, a personal property appraiser, and a collection manager. He also continues to create constructions that have been shown extensively and collected internationally.