Five years ago, my husband Nat and I were working at a local charter school. We had never meant to end up in education, but somehow, our paths had led us there.
And for all intents and purposes, we were in it for the long haul.
That is, until Nat got laid off.
Suddenly, all bets were off. I resigned later that year, and we struck out on our own.
After years of keeping art as a hobby, I decided it was time to try it it for a living.
In these past five years, I've met a lot of people who have found themselves at a similar crossroads.
I've met a lot of people who have toyed around with the idea of turning their part-time passions into full-time careers.
And a lot of those people are hampered by hesitation.
Most of the time, that hesitation is rooted in a sort of aimlessness. They'd love to go into business for themselves—but they don't know where to start.
If that sounds familiar, never fear: here's a step-by-step guide to help you start your own handmade business in 2019.
Set Your Goals
How do you define success? Everyone has different benchmarks for what success means to them.
Some people want to completely replace their nine-to-five. Others are happy if they make a couple extra bucks through their art.
Before starting your own business, take some time to get introspective. Sit down and make some goals. This could be a dollar amount or a number of units sold. Maybe you want to quit your full-time job by the end of the year. Or maybe you just want to sell something.
You can set your sights as high—or as low—as you want. Just make sure that your goals are realistic. If they're not, you could set yourself up for failure.
Regardless of where you want to take your handmade business, you can't get there all in one fell swoop. It should go without saying, but you shouldn't quit your day job to do art full-time without selling a few pieces on the side first.
Test the market. Sell at a couple one-day art shows. Put some of your goods in a local shop and see how well they go over. Post some pictures on Instagram and try to find some buyers there.
Start as small as you need to. You can always grow from there. It's much harder to un-quit your job.
Define Your Niche
In the words of Steve Jobs, "don't try to do everything. Do one thing well."
I know, that's easier said than done.
If you're anything like me, you don't really have a medium of choice. Some people are comfortable calling themselves a painter or a jewelry maker or a sculptor. But people like us have a hard time choosing. Which is part of the reason why I teach art instead of just selling it.
And obviously, I would never say that there's anything wrong with working in a variety of mediums. But when you're first starting your handmade business, offering a wide variety of goods can blur your message a bit.
Customers are easily distracted. If you want to break through to them, you need to be clear and direct. Offering too many different products can keep your customers from understanding what exactly it is you do. On the other hand, if you do one thing really well, you can gain attention in a hurry.
Build Your Web Presence
If you want to start any kind of business in 2019, you're going to need to have a solid web presence. Sure, there are still a number of art festivals and local shops where you can sell your wares. But if you limit yourself to your local market, you can be robbing yourself of a huge crop of customers.
You probably don't need me to tell you that the internet can connect you to buyers from all over the globe. But that takes a bit more work than just starting a Facebook page for your art and inviting your friends and family to like it.
For starters, it's a good idea to start with a page in an online marketplace. Nearly 2 million sellers are currently active on Etsy—and for good reason. Etsy has a massive customer base actively looking for unique handmade goods.
If you want to take it a step further, buy a custom domain and build a dedicated website for your wares. A standalone website can go a long way toward making you seem more professional and legitimate. Make sure that your small business website design is clean and uncluttered. Focus on high-quality product photos to show off your products.
Be sure to include a bio where customers can get to know you. Customers aren't just buying your product—they're buying your story. If your story resonates with them, they want to buy a piece of it.
Don't Neglect the Day-to-Day
For a lot of people, this is the hard part. We all know where we want our lives to go.
But the steps to get there are a little fuzzier.
You probably won't make sales every single day. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee that—especially at the beginning. But every day, you need to be doing something to make those sales happen.
Set a regular to-do list of things that you do every day. Make regular posts on social media. Spend some time brainstorming new products. Schedule in some unstructured creative time.
Resist the urge to wake up after noon and stay in your pajamas all day. A regular routine (and some work clothes)can help your brain get into "work mode" more easily.
Stick to your to-do list even when it feels like it's not making a difference. Those little things add up over time.
There's no fool proof way to start your own handmade business. There isn't a guaranteed 10-step model that will ensure success.
But if you're going to be successful, you need to give it your sweat.
There are going to be days where you want to quit. Days where you would rather sit behind a boring reception desk than make one more crocheted cactus.
That's perfectly normal. And if you realize that selling your own art isn't for you, that's fine. The world needs some people to sit behind a desk.
But if you're committed to making your handmade business work, it's going to take work. So keep at it. Keep grinding. Hustle like you mean it. And if you need a place to work with some fellow creatives who can push and encourage you, the shop's open for you.
Last Tuesday, we threw the third Rebel Art Fest. This time, at Potawatomi Park as part of Best. Week. Ever. It was a pretty major step up from setting up a tent in our parking lot and hoping no one needs to drive through the alley.
Around 3,000 people came through to enjoy local artists, musicians, and food trucks—and the blacklight jungle at the Conservatory.
It might seem like our little festival has finally hit the big time, but its heart is still the same.
Two years ago, when we first thought of putting on our own festival, we wanted to highlight all of the best local arts, music, and culture that South Bend—and especially our little neighborhood River Park—could offer. There were other art festivals in the area, but they either overlooked local talent, or had no bar for entry. They either showcased only a narrow idea of fine art, or they put elementary school dance teams on the same stage as local bands playing original music.
There was a huge middle ground that was getting no representation. Namely, the scores of amazing local artists whose work might be too unconventional or "low-brow" for a curated fine arts show, or bands whose sound isn't exactly radio friendly but still make fantastic music.
We saw tons of artists around us whose work was a bit weird, but wonderful—and worth celebrating.
And strangely enough, there seemed to be a huge concentration of those artists around River Park.
Which makes sense. River Park is a weird and wonderful little neighborhood. We don't have a Starbucks: we have The Well, a nonprofit coffeeshop that moonlights as a punk venue. Our river walk is littered with unauthorized artwork from our resident sculptor. We're home to Merriman's Play House and the Farmer's Market—amazing, important spaces with a decidedly non-mainstream appeal.
It's not everybody's cup of tea. And River Park isn't going to attract the same crowd as Downtown South Bend.
But we still think that weirdness is worth celebrating.
When we sat down to organize Rebel Art Fest, we wanted it to be a platform for the weird and wonderful artists specifically in our local community. Artists that might not ever be featured in a juried fine art show, but whose work deserves a larger audience.
Artists like La Grotesquerie, with her rogue taxidermy, Rhonda Whitledge, whose fantasy-based sculptures look like characters from the Dark Crystal universe, or the intimate, magical realism of Nerdy Brown Kid.
And then, there's the music. I lost track of how many times I was asked, "where are these guys from?" But I was absolutely delighted every time I told someone, "they're from here."
One of the unique things about Rebel Art Fest was that most of the bands lived within a mile of the venue. Whether it be the lucid post punk of Properties, the anarchic punk singalongs of SHAM, or the chamber pop chaos of The Flying DeSelms, it was all homegrown talent.
A decade ago, pulling off this kind of festival in South Bend would have been a struggle.
There were artists and musicians in town, but there wasn't much of a community between them. They were isolated, scraping to get their name out there without much of a support system. Many of them left for greener pastures.
But in the past few years, there has been a real renaissance in this city. Creatives aren't fleeing the Bend anymore. In fact, we've met artists who've actually moved here from larger cities because they like this community better.
When I moved back to South Bend nine years ago, there were maybe one or two local shows a week. Now, it seems like there are two or three per night. Most often, if I can't make it to a show for a friend's band, it's because I'm already going to another show that night.
Not to mention that Rebel Art Fest wasn't the only music festival last week.
The success of Rebel Art Fest isn't just indicative of a changing arts scene. It points to a changing city.
We had a lot of support for this year's festival from city government itself. Venues Parks and Arts did a lot of the legwork for marketing and promotion. The Potawatomi Conservatories didn't just let us turn it into a blacklight jungle: they gushed at the idea. They stayed open late so we could hang pool-noodle tentacles, origami butterflies, and paper-plate-and-cellophane jellyfish in the trees and strategically place blacklights around the greenhouse.
Not long ago, the powers that be might have raised an eyebrow at something like Rebel Art Fest. Asking the city to support a showcase of bizarre artists was pretty big leap. In many cities, the city would rather shut it down than support it.
But South Bend isn't like most cities. Especially after the last decade.
Rebel Art Fest served as a reflection of the growth in our creative community. And as the arts scene here has continued to grow and thrive, our strange little parking lot arts festival has grown with it.
And you better believe that next year will be even bigger.
by Nathaniel FitzGerald
When we first started MAKE SOUTH BEND, it was because we wanted makers in our community to have access to tools and resources that they wouldn't be able to afford on their own.
Our motivation was a bit selfish, admittedly: Michelle had sketched out a leather wallet/journal combo that she was stoked about. She bought some leather making tools and made a few prototypes. After a few failed concepts, our first negative review on Etsy, and a couple hundred dollars down spent on tools that she didn't want to look at anymore, she threw up her hands and wished for a coworking space that would have the tools for her. Seeing nothing in the area, we opened our own.
We wanted our space would become a haven for artists and makers who didn't have their own studio or tools to come in and create. Not everyone has access to a screenprinting studio. Laser cutters, pottery wheels, and kilns aren't exactly home-friendly.
But something happened that we weren't expecting.
People who didn't need our space bought memberships.
We have a few members who just paint. One is an illustrator—I don't even think she's ever used any of our equipment. One person came in to practice origami boxes.
These are all things that a person could easily do at home. We were doing some of that in our basement before we opened the shop. But I understand why they're coming.
Outside of MAKE, I write freelance. This gives me the freedom to work whenever I want from wherever I want. But the problem with setting your own work schedule is the "work" part. I have the freedom to plop down on the couch in front of my record collection and plug away on my laptop. And, surprising no one, that quickly devolves into slacking off.
Working in the shop, however, gives some accountability. When I'm around other people who are working, it helps me stay on task too. And sometimes, I'm even inspired by what they're doing. Their contagious energy rubs off, and I want to accomplish something too.
This isn't only happening at MAKE. Freelancers, entrepreneurs, and remote workers are joining coworking in ever-growing numbers. In the past ten years, almost 14,000 coworking spaces have popped up around the world. Many of these don't even have special equipment people can use: just a few desks, wi-fi, and a community of like-minded individuals.
If that sounds like something you could benefit from, but you aren't ready to purchases a membership, stop by the shop every other Wednesday morning for Coworking Wednesdays. Have a cup of coffee, grab a spot at a desk, and enjoy the community. And from personal experience, it sure beats mindlessly tabbing between your work and Reddit all by yourself.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go put on some real pants.
If you're waiting around for that breathtaking website to be complete or for the product to be perfect, you won't be getting anywhere fast. It's 2018 already, and it's time to take action.
First, you should test your idea on a sample audience. Ask people for feedback and try to ask people who will actually be customers. Your mom can only buy so much product from you before you need new customers. Testing your idea is as simple as asking, "Hey would you use this? What would you pay for it?" Then take that feedback and use it to guide your further product development and your marketing strategy. In a makerspace like this, it's also easy to ask the other makers around you for feedback and even for advice on design, packaging, pricing, etc. It helps to be around others who get what you're doing.
The next stage is to make your product good enough to sell. Improvements can always come along the way. Apple has been doing this for years. Give customers what you have now, and when improvements come, you can sell those too. For example, when I started making jewelry, I had some great design ideas but was limited to only using polymer clay, so I did that until I had access to a kiln and upgraded my material to porcelain. The first designs sold well because people liked the way they looked, and the second version still sold well because there was great design and a more durable product.
The other thing that will help you sell your product is by having attractive branding, packaging and marketing. Every decision you make from the company name to the logo colors, the fonts, and even the box you put it in all convey some message about you and your company that either make people want to be part of that story or barely notice it all. You want to be noticed. Look at some recognizable brands or other popular handmade brands to get ideas on how to do this well.
Then, once you have a product you know people will want, and you've packaged it well so it tells your story for you, you need to get it out there. You can start an Etsy page (but it's grown very competitive), you can sell at shows (just make sure you find good ones), you can give some product to "influencers" to help get the word out about your item, but you must build some sort of online social presence, be that Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.
If you can grow your own following, you can have an audience and customers anytime you need. If not, you'll be relying on luck or spending lots of money on advertising dollars.
So don't let 2018 pass you by. Start networking with other makers at one of our coworking days. Hone your skills and get your product to a sellable state, making prototypes. You can use tools at a makerspace like ours for a low cost. Get your company basics prepared to share, and get on social media.
Some good resources for design and web building are Canva.com and Weebly.com.
By Haleigh Ehmsen
You can shop Rachelyn Jewelry on Etsy.
Sculpting Workshop with Rhonda Whitledge
We're extremely excited to be partnering with Rhonda for this unique workshop. If you love creatures like the kind you'll find in pictures from Jim Henson, George Lucas, Tim Burton, etc., this class if for you. The best part is, you won't need any experience. Just bring your imagination, a stand if you want it, and any fabric you'd like to use as doll clothes. We hope to see you there!
See more of Rhonda's work here:
To register, follow this link here: