It used to be that if you had a creative skill – whether it was jewellery making, pottery, crochet or photography – your customer base was limited to whoever walked past your shop, or fetched up at your stall at the local craft fair.
But these days, creating is big business. The UK’s craft industries currently turn over around £400m every year – more than double the figure for ten years ago. And over the same period, the number of craft businesses has risen by 20 per cent. So what’s behind the rise of the creative entrepreneur?
The short answer is, of course, the internet. Pinterest and Instagram provide the perfect showcase for visually striking creations, while global craft market Etsy gives craft businesses a worldwide shop window.
Anyone can start a craft business without the old-fashioned overheads: in a world where you can sell from your back bedroom, there’s no need to pay for expensive retail space.
And you can make according to demand, with no vast investments in factory space or raw materials – check out Etsy sellers such as KimsHandmadeCave, where Kim sells handmade items from her home, including phone and tablet cases created from scraps and leftover fabric from other projects.
Technology also allows creative entrepreneurs to develop other income streams. An exquisite one-off item takes a long time to create, and these items alone might not be enough to drive a sustainable business. But a clever crafter can always come up with offshoots: South Africa-based nature-inspired crochet guru June Gilbank, for example, designs and sells unique downloadable crochet patterns to crochet lovers from Poland to Canada, as well as taking on commissions and writing crochet books.
But there’s another factor at work here, what a recent report from Deloitte, Making in an Industry 4.0 World, pinpoints as an evolution in demand for "greater customisation and personalisation".
As Chad Dickerson, chief executive of Etsy, says, consumers are sick of "the same old big-box retail products". In an increasingly homogenised world, it’s easy to see why choosy consumers are prepared to pay for, say, a hand-painted set of Beatles Yellow Submarine upcycled chairs by artist Todd Fendos, rather than the same old Ikea. They want unique, quirky, different – and they’re prepared to pay for it.
But there’s a caveat, of course: it’s not enough just to stick up a couple of your black-and-white beach photos, or shonky Game of Thrones fan art, or badly-knitted Christmas baby jumpers, and hope that someone buys them. Your stuff has got to be good. Customers pay for quality – and that same technology which allows you to sell to them also lets them have their say, very publicly, if your creations aren’t up to scratch.
Plus, there’s that toughness and stamina that every entrepreneur needs. Yes, you might be an artist and a creative – but you’re also running a business. So treat it like a business and make sure you learn the basics – keeping a balance sheet, calculating profit and loss, working out your overheads and setting the right price.
Like any other entrepreneur, be prepared to deal with migraine-inducing admin, crashing websites, orders that go astray, copyist competitors and a lot of late nights.
And sometimes, even quality isn’t enough. Yes, you can reach customers all over the world with your incredible creations – but they’ve got to find you first. In an increasingly crowded field (a search for ‘handmade mittens’ on Etsy brings up a dizzying 48,851 items!) getting your unique products noticed is tough.
That’s why successful creative entrepreneurs are still out there, selling – no longer at the craft fair, but through their cross-platform presence on social media, from engaging with customers on their own Twitter, Instagram and Facebook feeds to posting video tutorials on YouTube. Think about the hits that your website gets (a few hundred a month?) and compare that to the potential reach of these sites – YouTube gets more than a billion hits per day. Wise creative entrepreneurs know that to sell, it’s not enough to create a piece of art. You’ve got to create a community, too.