THE DIY ISSUE
The week of September 7, 2014
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The industrialization of DIY economy

By Leslie Anne Jones

Jordan Castro was a construction manager when the 2008 housing crash and recession devastated his career. The companies he worked for foundered, his pay and benefits were slashed. He juggled three jobs and still wasn’t earning enough.

That’s when a machinist friend making jewelry turned him on to Etsy, the handmade online marketplace. Castro didn’t know anything about jewelry, but he had a decade of experience working with concrete and had been wanting to try making housewares.

Fast forward six years, and Castro is a master craftsman who casts kitchenware out of concrete and sells his products online. This post-industrial career has afforded the 39-year-old father of three a measure of stability beyond his previous work. He has two employees and is investing heavily in growing his business.

“We are a little bit more comfortable now,” says Castro, who’s based in Maine. “I know how I’m going to pay the mortgage next month, which is a big deal for me.”

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Castro is one of countless DIY success stories, those who turned passion projects into full-time careers in the past decade. But the commercial landscape of DIY and maker culture in the digital realm has changed rapidly since Castro first threw together an Etsy page.

Three years ago, he started with a salt cellar. He put it up on Etsy, and slowly orders trickled in. Castro was, by his own admission, not a digital sales mastermind. This was 2011, and flash-buying sites were the big e-commerce trend of the minute. He fielded plenty of requests from websites who wanted to hawk his product, but it didn’t seem like a good deal—it meant a lot of work for him, plus selling his product at a discount and splitting the proceeds. Luckily, he and his wife just so happened to subscribe to Inc. magazine, and the founders of Fab.com—one of those flash-buying websites whose emails he’d been ignoring—were on the cover.

Etsy has transformed the DIY economy.

“I’m like, ‘Holy shit, they contacted us, they contacted us!'” Castro recalls. “I went to the computer, I’m like, ‘Yes, yes, yes let’s do it.'”

Through Fab.com, Castro cleared $30,000 worth of merchandise in three days. He didn’t sleep for several days finishing the order. The boon allowed him to quit his job and make the jump to full-time craftsman.

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These days, however, Fab.com, which once had hundreds of millions in funding and a $1 billion valuation, is more of a cautionary tale. No longer a flash-sale site but just another standard e-retailer, the site is reportedly up for sale for about one-tenth of its record-high valuation.

Etsy, meanwhile, has transformed the DIY economy.

When Etsy started in 2005 in Brooklyn, there was already a hipster-y crafting culture coming of age (remember Stitch ‘n Bitch?) that was a far cry from the provincial domesticity of Martha Stewart’s instructional domain. As the Internet’s new hometown arts and craft show, the Etsy marketplace offered a cacophony of handmade goods.

Today, the site has more than 1 million active shops, representing a broad swath of artisans and hobbyists. The site’s popularity has been a bit of a double-edged sword: It’s had trouble with mass manufacturers that dishonestly leverage the site’s handmade branding.

Attending to some of these marketplace problems, Etsy Wholesale came out of beta just last month. This new Etsy site is private, open only to professional buyers and sellers, and unlike traditional Etsy, not just anyone can peddle their decoupage. Sellers must apply to have their products listed there, a measure that should help distinguish the makers equipped to produce big orders from the hobbyists.

Just as blogs have built a business model around content aggregation, e-commerce is now in the midst of a curation renaissance.

“We always knew retailers were coming to Etsy.com,” said Vanessa Bertozzi, a senior program manager for Etsy Wholesale who has been with the company since 2007. During her tenure, Bertowzzi said she’s seen the Etsy marketplace grow from its rough-around-the-edges and “consciously crafty” roots to a space offering an increasing array of products that are clean, modern, and focused on natural materials.

Just as blogs have built a business model around content aggregation, e-commerce, thanks in large part to Etsy’s success, is now in the midst of a curation renaissance. Relatively few people want to spend the time to sift and discover quality products. However, in opposition to the fleeting nature of our digital culture, interest in handmade products is stronger than ever. Enter the curators—the individuals and companies building businesses around sussing the good from bad so the casual shopper doesn’t have to spend hours scrolling.

A lot of curation takes place in the gifting space. Wantful launched in 2011 as a website through which users could create a catalog of gifts from Wantful’s offerings for their intended recipient (Castro also sold his products through Wantful). It raised $5.5 million in series A funding and Nordstrom was a major investor, but the company shuttered last year after failing to secure continued funding.

Austin-based startup Loop & Tie offers a similar proposition but on a smaller scale and with a simpler user experience. Founder Sara Rodell was an economics major in college and had long been interested in areas where emotions got in the way of market efficiency, like gifting. If gifting were efficient, she explained, we would all just give one another cash. So how does one give a thoughtful gift without spending too much time on the selection?

Her answer was Loop & Tie, which curates handmade and artisanal products—a DIY cheese kit, gourmet jerky, earbuds made with zebrawood, and also Castro’s concrete salt cellars—and lets users select a price category of gifts from which the recipient can choose.

“We want to be sharing not only a product, but a story behind it,” Rodell said of her company’s maker bent. “That kind of interaction feels very personal and meaningful.”

Maker-culture curation also takes the form of box subscription services. Probably anyone with a Facebook account has heard of Birchbox, the monthly subscription service offering samples of high-end products for men and women. But there are multitudinous box curators selling through social channels—people curating art supplies, baby products, boxes full of crafting projects, vegan snacks, horror-movie memorabilia.

“We want to be sharing not only a product, but a story behind it.” —Sara Rodell

There’s that saying about selling shovels in a gold rush, and then there’s Cratejoy. The company launched last year and is still in private beta. Cratejoy offers an array of business services—Web hosting, analytics, subscription sign-up, payment processing—that box subscription entrepreneurs in the past had to build themselves or piecemeal from other providers. Founder Amir Elaguizy says he has a waitlist in the thousands of merchants and has yet to advertise his product.

Another newcomer this summer to the growing arena of curation-as-digital-commerce was Sonder Mill, a website that curates premium furniture and decor produced by North American makers. Founder Scott Miller said the local markets of North Africa and the Mediterranean that he traveled to last year inspired him.

“I wanted to start up a business that helped other small business,” said Miller, whose background is actually in tech. “I was leaning towards the artisan space, and I did have that experience while I was traveling. One thing led to another.”

No doubt winners and losers will continue to shake out as the intersection of e-commerce and curation irons itself out. Today, Castro’s revenues come approximately 30 percent from his website and Etsy page, 30 percent from partnerships with other Internet retailers and curators, and 40 percent from traditional, brick-and-mortar retail outlets.

At least for now, it appears that good taste can make good business sense. Lisa Wallace runs Indie Gift Box, which curates monthly troves of jewelry, stationery, and seasonal accessories. Wallace says she herself isn’t crafty, but on her website, she’s given herself the title Chief Curator and posted a dreamy image of herself in a floral crown.

“You’re kind of selling yourself,” she explains; people have to trust you with the curation part.

Like Miller, she’s happy her business plays a part in promoting other entrepreneurs in this post-recession era.

“I see maker culture as really important to reviving the domestic economy where mass manufacturing is dying,” she said. “In order for this to happen, however, there has to be a market for specialty handmade products, and we’re part of that growing market.”

Correction: The original version of this story misspelled the name of Etsy Wholesale’s senior program manager, Vanessa Bertozzi. 

All photos via Jordan Castro