Kim McBrien has loved making things with textiles her whole life. She now has a thriving hand dyed yarn business, Indigo Dragonfly, but figuring out how to turn her passion for fiber into a business was challenging. “I first tried to make a living as a contemporary basket maker,” McBrien says. “It became very clear very quickly that there is no market for handmade contemporary baskets in North America, or at least not enough to build a business and make a living. No amount of marketing or education was going to shift that market.”
It wasn’t that her baskets weren’t photographed well enough, or the listing copy wasn’t compelling enough, or even that she wasn’t networking on social media enough. The product itself was the problem.
That news can be difficult to face. McBrien wanted a successful handmade business, though, so she reevaluated. “And so began years of continuing my textile life as a hobby, dabbling in various aspects from cloth and yarn dyeing to knitting to spinning and so on. And observing,” she says. “Listening to others about what they want and what they don’t. Being able to put aside ego enough to put aside pieces that don’t work.”
I relate to McBrien’s story. For many years I made and sold soft sculpture birds on Etsy and in stores and galleries. It was great fun, but the birds were never very profitable. They were highly detailed and I would either have to price them so high they’d never sell or price them lower and not be fairly compensated for my time. The finished product was rather delicate, too. If a customer in a shop bent the wire legs the bird would no longer stand. Customers weren’t sure what to do with a bird – it wasn’t a toy or a Christmas ornament, so what was it? And how should they clean it?
In 2009 I had an idea for a book about designing stuffed animals. I wrote an overly complicated book proposal and sent it off to seven publishers. Five of them wrote me back and a few days later I was on the phone with the acquisitions editor at Interweave. She said while she liked my proposal she wondered if instead we might do a book of the birds. I decided to go for it.
My book, The Artful Bird, came out two years later and sold really well. It was named an ALA Booklist top 10 book of 2011 and I’ve made just over $20,000 from it to date.
The birds themselves weren’t a viable product. They were lovely and fun, but they weren’t profitable enough to allow me to build a business. For me at that time, the product was the problem.
We’re so lucky to have a tremendously supportive online community of makers today. When someone expresses disappointment that their product isn’t selling on Etsy we’re eager to help, pointing them to resources for improving their product shots or writing better listings or improving SEO. And of course all of those things are vital to having a successful handmade business online. But there are times when the crux of the problem is the product itself.
Some handmade items are incredibly time-consuming to create and have to be priced higher than the market can bear. And sometimes the handmade item itself is not made in a quality way or with quality materials. I think there’s a market out there for almost everything, but that market might be so small that it can’t sustain a business. Or it might be very difficult to reach.
Telling someone that you see a fundamental problem with their product can be difficult and uncomfortable and often we just avoid it. So if you feel your handmade business is struggling, think about actively soliciting negative feedback. Show your product to friends and family and tell them, “I only want you to give me negative feedback.” Ask them, “What about this would make you hesitant to buy?”
Teresa Levy has had a business making handmade plush for over a decade now. She sells in a variety of venues- craft shows, Etsy, and ComicCons – and has seen a lot of handmade businesses struggle. “I saw some things at recent craft shows and wondered how they are even running a viable business. Crafters sell handmade items that no one necessarily needs. So it’s important to evaluate what a craft’s true appeal is. Is it cute? Funny? Beautifully made? I think people assume because it’s handmade it’ll sell, without considering what a consumer is actually looking for in a handmade item, which is quality and uniqueness in my experience. But how do you tell someone that? I think part of the issue is that ‘girl code talk’ doesn’t allow us to be frank with each other without hurt feelings.”
If you find out your product isn’t as great as you’d hoped you can change it to make it closer to what people want. You can seek out a different market for it. You can scrap it and head in a new direction. Or, if you’re truly devoted to it, you can keep going and accept that the market will be small. Craft business advisor and community leader, Tara Swiger, puts it this way. “Get real with yourself about what ‘enough demand’ means to you. If you want a million dollar company, you need to find something that enough people want. If you want to make a few thousand dollars a month, you need far fewer people to be into it.”