Handheld Handmade is an innovative ecommerce service launching next week that operates entirely via text messaging. It’s the first of its kind in the handmade retail scene, and among the first text messaging ecommerce platforms in the United States. A year in development the San Francisco based company is the brainchild of Kelly Rand, an entrepreneur with deep roots in the handmade community. She recognized a need for a new kind of frictionless buying experience that would help consumers discover handcrafted brands through limited time offers sent straight to their phones.
Kelly really understands makers because she’s one herself. After earning a BFA in illustration from Savannah College of Art and Design, she co-founded Hello Craft, a non-profit trade association for independent crafters that hosted The Summit of Awesome, a makers business conference, from 2009-2012. Her book, Handmade to Sell, was published by Potter Craft in 2012 and since then she’s written about craft for a variety of publications including Bust magazine, and spoken at Etsy.
She also spent several years working for a non-profit and it was there that she first realized the power of text messaging. The organization was using texts, also known as SMS, to spur activism, making it frictionless for constituents to fax their Congressional representatives or sign a petition. “It made so much sense to me,” she says. Statistics proved her right: 98% of text messages are read within two minutes.
Over the last few years, as Kelly found herself frustrated trying to find and buy from handmade shops she realized there might be a way to use texting to drive ecommerce for makers. “If I’m sitting on my couch scrolling Instagram looking for stuff, there are too many clicks to get to the product I want,” she says. “You can click on the link, but it dumps you back into their website. So I just kinda got frustrated and knew with text messaging it can simplify the checkout process. I wanted to explore that.”
A year ago she began investigating the SMS retail market and what she found was that many companies are using text messaging for marketing, but next to none are actually conducting retail directly via SMS. “Either I’m being innovative or there’s something I’m missing,” Kelly says. “Even the big box stores, like Macy’s or World Market or even JOANN, they do have text messaging programs, but it’s to send you coupons and then you bring your phone to the store and show that you have this text message coupon, or they send you a link to a coupon to their website.”
The few SMS retail outlets she did find had made only baby steps into the market. One offered a record a day, promising to learn your music taste based on which records you chose to buy and another specialized in small batch gourmet foods, but both have since petered out. A third, Jetblack, is a high-end concierge service catering to moms in New York City.
In China, it’s a different story. Consumers there use their phones for 60 times more mobile payments than they do in the US. The predominate texting app, WeChat, is used by one billion people daily for all kinds of commerce including buying a plane ticket, tipping at a restaurant, and having food delivered. In comparison, the US market lags far behind.
Handmade may be the sector that helps it catch up. “There’s always been this juxtaposition between technology and handmade, or at least within our wave of handmade,” Kelly says, citing the launch of Etsy in 2005 as an example of a fairly early ecommerce platform. “A lot of the handmade communities came about because of the internet so I think this is the next iteration of that juxtaposition.”
Handheld Handmade is built on an opensource software called RapidPro. Kelly’s husband, Mal McKay, a software developer with SMS experience, is lending a hand to help build the infrastructure.
Customers get started on the service customers by texting 202-800-9191. They go through a short survey to set up their style preferences and set their budget. After that, they receive a twice-weekly text message with a product picture and description, along with an invitation to reply BUY to buy, or MORE for more information about the product.
The first time a customer texts back BUY they input their payment and shipping information (payments are processed through Stripe which integrates with RapidPro). After that, the process is frictionless and the entire transaction stays within the text message. Simply text BUY and the transaction is complete.
Kelly acknowledges that as a shop owner SMS presents some limitations. It’s complicated to offer size variations, for example, so she’s is sticking to home goods, accessories, jewelry, and paper goods that don’t have these variables. The shopping experience can also feel one-sided, with the customer only shopping when they receive a text. In October Kelly plans to roll out a browsing feature. Customers will be able to text an emoji and receive a text back with a related product (text a pineapple emoji, for example, and get a text of a necklace with a pineapple pendant).
There are regulations to abide by, too. SMS operates over the telecom system and is regulated by the Federal Trade Commission. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) requires businesses using SMS to secure written consent from customers either by having them enter their information via a web form or by submitting a keyword to a phone number. The business must then confirm that consent by making it clear how many texts they will send, that messaging rates may apply, and explaining how a customer can opt out. Handheld Handmade is only available on US phone numbers right now.
A feature Kelly is particularly excited about is the option to see products from local makers. “My long-term goal is to make this a place that you know you’re going to get handmade items that are really special and also a way to discover makers you wouldn’t have known about, people you wouldn’t have had the time to find otherwise,” she says. Customers can learn more about the makers they discover on the Handheld Handmade Instagram feed and, coming soon, on the company’s blog.
The limited edition, hard-to-discover nature of handmade products makes them particularly appealing to the personalization and urgency of the text messaging platform. That, combined with the ease of purchasing, makes Handheld Handmade a promising bet.
In February, Kelly demoed the service at Midwest Craft Con where she was able to sign up about 50 people to join the private beta. Since then she’s been testing the service, working out the kinks. “I’ve had a lot of conversations, called up the beta users on the phone and gotten a lot of really great feedback,” she says. “Some of the pieces of feedback that I’m getting is that it’s fun, it’s easy to use, and it’s simple.”
The ecommerce model is fairly traditional. Kelly is buying goods wholesale from makers and doing the shipping and fulfillment herself, right now its all done from her home. She’s currently stocking between 25-30 products. From September 15-23 Handheld Handmade will have a popup shop at Gather in San Francisco showing hundreds of SKUs with the goal of introducing people to the service.
In Kelly’s experience once consumers understand Handheld Handmade they marvel at its simplicity. “I’m learning that it is a little bit of an education because nobody is really doing this,” she says. “But once they understand it, it’s a lot of ‘wow, this really amazing! I’ve never heard of something like this before. This is really cool.”