the language of handmade & the entrepreneurial spirit

houses & birds illustration pattern
houses and birds print by judy kaufmann

in the last few months, i’ve been given a few opportunities to ponder the “language” of handmade. when i say language, i don’t just mean the random labels we put on things but the intrinsic meaning behind those labels. the differences between indie & traditional, crafter & artist, craftsman & crafter, handmade & independently produced… and also the phrases that we use to bring new people into the handmade movement: passion, quality, value, innovation, materials, technique…

do these phrases speak to people outside of the creative community, outside of the handmade movement?

and as people who cherish handmade things, art, design, and creativity, we share a burden to communicate our passion to the rest of society. finding the right language is an integral part of the process.

my guess is no. really, it’s better than a guess. we live in a culture that doesn’t necessarily put a lot of value on quality, innovation, and materials. we put a lot of value on how abundant something makes us feel or how it positions us among our peers. now, here you must forget that owning/wearing/displaying handmade in your community is a status symbol and think like an outsider. because most people are outsiders to our community. handmade gets lost. creativity gets lost. how can the language of handmade begin to speak to a society that values quantity over quality?

we must begin to speak a different language: a language that resonates with this society.

perhaps the best way to communicate the passion behind this handmade movement is to tap into the entrepreneurial spirit of this generation.

etsy’s ceo, rob kalin, recently told the wall street journal that his vision for etsy is:

Instead of having an economy dictate the behavior of communities, to empower communities to influence the behavior of economies. I’ve spoken at many universities, and there’s this huge entrepreneurial spirit in students in school now. In my mind, Etsy’s ecosystem is about empowering and supporting these very small businesses. That goes well beyond just a marketplace.

i agree with rob, it seems that few are satisfied being just another employee: maker or otherwise. we have a deep desire to move, shake, and make things happen for ourselves. to have control over our lives, our livelihood, and the world around us. i think bowing to the will of massive corporations (whether you’re employed by them or not) is an easy way to lose control. when you buy what a commercial tells you to buy, you’re giving up control of your purchasing decision.

embracing the handmade movement is a sure way to take control of our desire to consume. and at the same time, it is a great way to feel a part of something larger than yourself. it fulfills the desire to be different and to fit in at the same time. entrepreneurs embody this duality: their business is based on standing apart from the crowd – and yet they are connected, intrinsically, to the ancient path of movers & shakers who make dreams reality.

entrepreneurs have no desire to be a cog in a wheel. they have that desire to be different and yet, fit into a community.

so, as a creative community, how can we change our language to speak to this entrepreneurial generation? first start thinking like an entrepreneur. embrace these characteristics of entrepreneurial personality:

  • entrepreneurs invest in themselves. entrepreneurs want to do what’s best for them. they want to embrace the best of the best and surround themselves with things that build them up from the inside out. handmade can do this. handmade objects, by their very nature are built from the inside out – full of spirit.
  • entrepreneurs are accessible. entrepreneurs put themselves out there so that others invest in their dream – if we present the handmade movement in the same light, the entrepreneurs will reciprocate. what retailer is more accessible than a maker who sells their own goods? help outsiders tap into the community and take part in the accessibility.
  • entrepreneurs follow up constantly. and so should we. it took my husband a whole year to give buying handmade a try. and he’s an art lover. but i never stopped hinting, pushing, and making handmade my go-to for important purchases. now he’s hooked and gets ticked off when we can’t give handmade gifts.
  • finally, entrepreneurs ask for the sale. it can be so easy to forget that you’re advocating for a new way of doing business (whether your a seller or a buyer) when you talk about the handmade movement. it’s not just cool stuff or a diy attitude. it’s a new business model even a new economic model (see rob’s statement above!) and at some point, you just need to ask people to giving buying handmade a shot! what harm is there in that?

evangelizing handmade, just like advocating for any cause, requires a constant evaluation of the language we use to talk about it. it takes an evaluation of the audience you’re speaking to and the buttons you can push to get them to listen. if we’re to speak to people outside the creative community about the virtues of handmade, we need to speak their language not ours.

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19 thoughts on “the language of handmade & the entrepreneurial spirit

  1. Amen to that! I couldn’t agree with you more!

    I become so angry when I hear someone say to me when they visit a craft event, “Oh I would never pay $____ for that.” Which is funny because in my mind I was thinking, “that seller is COMPLETELY underpricing her work!” I can say that because as a maker myself, I understand not only all the money that goes into the materials, the time you have invested in making the product, branding your products, etc. But I also know the passion that is usually behind your handmade products. It’s that passion that gets you up in the middle of the night because you just have to try out a new idea! It’s that passion and dedication to your craft that gives you the energy to work into the wee hours of the morning once all the kids have gone to bed. It’s that passion that goes into every stitch, every stroke of the paintbrush, every screen print, every step from the initial birth of your idea to the last piece of packing tape used to ship your items. As indie makers we are trying to not only sell our handmade products but also selling a feeling that we hope we have created & that resonates from our wares. I know what drives me to buy a handmade product is not only that it is aesthetically pleasing to me but I am also buying that makers story that maybe I have come to know through his or her blog. There is SO MUCH that goes into handmade that could never, ever be duplicated by mass production & big machines.

    I could go on and on as this is topic of handmade vs. machine made can get the old blood pumping. So I say with a LOUD RESOUNDING VOICE, “DAMN RIGHT…I WILL BE EVANGELIZING HANDMADE!!!” 😉

    Who else will join in? :)

    Thanks for letting me get on my soapbox for a bit,

    1. hey tania!

      thank you for stepping on your soapbox! i love what you had to say and i’m sure you know i couldn’t agree more.

      i think what you said, though, about also selling that “feeling” is a bit what i’m questioning with this post. i think that message really resonates within our creative community – but does it speak to people who are not makers themselves? who don’t associate an intrinsically positive feeling with the act of creation?

      so how can we communicate that benefit to people who don’t speak our language? not sure i have too many answers – but i got lots of questions 😉

      thanks again, tania!

      1. Hi Tara-hmmm…oh boy, you’ve got me thinking now. Unfortunately, I think your right about that “feeling” not resonating to those who don’t “make” or aren’t part of a Handmade community. I’m forced to ask myself if before I was a “maker” did I value handmade as much as I do now? Would I have supported and “defended” handmade with as much gusto? How can I make that feeling resonate to “makers” and “non-makers” alike? Oh dear…one more thing for me to ponder and obsess about…hee, hee. 😉

  2. Great article!

    I have to agree with Tania that I get a funny feeling when someone visits a craft fair and then complains about the price. When I know they have no remorse about plunking down a chunk of change on some china made gadget at the local superstore.

    I love supporting local artists and the handmade market.

    I take a more “political” stance when I say “let’s keep our hard earned American dollars, in America by purchasing locally or from a crafter” plus I feel I am helping them live their dream of being an entrepreneur as well as artist/crafter by financially supporting them (by purchasing from them).

    I always tell my girls if they treat their biz as a hobby, others will too. If they want their biz to grow or to get more sales, they need to treat it as a biz, not a hobby.

    And one step in making the change from hobby to biz is to change the way of thinking–think like a small biz and then act like a small biz.

    Very informative article!!

    1. hey rhonda!

      right on with the idea of treating a biz as a biz and not a hobby. i think that is the flipside of this post and i really appreciate you bringing it up! while i focused on the external language we use to communicate with others about the handmade movement, you’re talking about the internal language we use to talk to ourselves.

      LOVE it! i see a follow-up post brewing… 😉
      have a great week, rhonda!

  3. I bet you’re not surprised that I love this. That article in the NY Times really caused me to see a bigger picture and how handmade is destined to be a game changer within our economy. Well said!

  4. Interesting points.
    Just a reminder that not all creative, indie, entrepreneurs produce a “handmade” product.
    Your points are relevant for any small independent producers just as they are for handmade producers – and we all trying to contribute to the change in consumer attitude.

    1. ugh – fiona – SO TRUE! i’m making the very mistake i’m trying to write about… what is the word that can represent this kind of product? indie seems like a buzz word… creative is good – creative what?

      thanks, as always, for reminding me to think big & wide, fiona!

  5. Hi Tara,
    thanks for an engaging post again. I was just going again through a smaller “business identity crisis”. It seems that those are always necessary if you make things that you care for… The constant reinvention and rethinking of your path.

    So, yes it is a question of evangelizing, but I also think it should be on a larger and smaller scale. On a local and global scale, you need to tell your neighbors what you are doing, just as much as you need to shout out to the world. You need to inform and educate your neighbors just as much as you have to talk to the world. The buzz needs to start close around you as it has to go far, that will give you the opportunity to do more in so many ways.

    1. hi adaleta! thanks for your great comment.

      first of all yes, i think we’re all in business identity crises most of the time. i recently hit a stride with mine – and i’m feeling really, really good about it. but who knows how long this will last? my long-term business plan is more about principles and the method i will use to uphold those principles and less about what i’ll be doing at any given moment.

      second, couldn’t agree more on your point about local vs. global. i founded a site called handmade in pa at the beginning of last year, at the heart, it was all about getting to know your crafty neighbors and it was a huge success for that very reason. sometimes we need to get out from behind the computer screen and look at our own communities!

  6. hi scoutie girl,
    this may be very irrelavant to this post but i read ur article on problogger and thought i’d check ur blog out. i really enjoy it and can see how much creativity n dedication is put into this! thank u for sharing all ur creative ideas and amazing finds (like the painting u found at the Jealous Curator – lovely!).

    have a great week ahead~ x

  7. Great post!

    There’s a great entrepreneurial wave going here in New Orleans especially (we’ve been written up in some national publications recently as a great place for entrepreneurship). There’s also a much bigger emphasis on shopping local and supporting local economies, particularly since Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures made us realize how important preserving our local culture and economies really is. Lately, I’ve been focused on tapping into that and promoting myself and my brand locally. I’m trying to carry as many local artists as possible in my new online store, and I’m trying to reach out to primarily local media with my initial marketing efforts. I’ve also been focused on participating in as many local events, both markets and networking events, as possible, to connect one on one both with other entrepreneurs and with local shoppers. Hopefully it will work out and I can build a strong base of local fans! (Especially important since my long-term goal is to have an actual brick & mortar boutique here!)

  8. Great post! (I also liked your post on DailyWorth today!) I felt hurt and angry when my own sister said (while I packed up some orders) “People pay that much for those?!” And again, when I showed her a work of art “How can you charge that much, after all, the materials couldn’t have cost much.” I remember thinking oh well, people like that are not my target market. But these in fact are the people we have to convince, re-educate to recognize quality, and stop equating quantity with quality. I live in France now, while my sister is still in the US, but I haven’t given up on her. I send her and her family handmade gifts from my favorite artists and crafters for holidays and birthdays. She has actually begun to buy some vintage items herself, which is a step in the right direction. By the way, artisan is one word you didn’t mention. It’s the same word in French and refers to a highly skilled craftsman -woman. Here in France, artisans are also business owners, and apparently the least affected by the recession. And the handmade revolution is gaining ground here too!

  9. Dear Scoutie Girl,

    There is something about your site that makes my heart ache. In a good way. I’ve been trying so hard to follow all the ‘rules’ with my blog (about writing and publishing) and to keep it really focused and simple. But it seems to lack life. In the past I’ve been more experimental with my blogs, but they’ve felt scattered. Maybe it’s just me – I tend to swing too far one way or another. Anyway, your blog inspires me to infuse my blog with more of the philosophical, inspired moments of my day instead of instruction and lists. Found you at problogger, btw. Great post.

  10. I have said something like this before and I don’t want to sound like I am disagreeing. I am not at all, in fact, I completely agree. BUT… I think that a big part of the issue here is mixing up a demographic. I may be totally wrong as I live in a community that really supports artisans and crafters, however, I grew up in a very affluent society and saw that there is a mentality that covets artisan goods. I also have lived in areas that were not as well off, but where there is money, there are people who are willing to support quality. And most of these people understand that there is a correlation between handmade and quality. What I am getting at is that the mass consumerism society is absolutely going to catch on but VERY SLOWLY… and in the meantime, we need to understand how to reach the demographic that will actually pay for quality. And sites like etsy are unfortunately not going to be that place yet.

    Language has a big part in this for sure. To begin with, PLEASE stop calling them craft shows. The word “craft” tends to bring up images of pinecones and macaroni for people. Myself included. If I see a poster for a craft fair I immediately assume that the goods will be small and inexpensive things people make on the side as a hobby. If I see “Art Show” I assume that the prices will be higher but I also assume that it will be very subjective and possibly difficult to find something as a gift or general purchase. What we need is to find new lingo. Words that convey sophistication, knowledge ABOUT ones craft… “artisan wares” or something along those lines are good, but not catchy. If you really want to sell your stuff, figure out your demographic and work on that. It is my opinion that if we get the people who are buying designer clothing because they were told to by the media, to now be buying independent designers of any goods, the rest will follow. It does definitely boil down to status, but it is not going to work for us to just talk about status, we need to also passionately pursue the idea that we can create goods that the status “seekers” will want and then in turn, they will be the ones to convey the image of “status” on to the others.

    It doesn’t work to take a Wal-mart shopper and try to sell to them. It can work to try to re-educate them, but in the meantime, don’t fool yourself on who your demographic is. There is a big difference (and one that can make or break your business) between who your demographic IS and who you THINK they are or WANT them to be. Unfortunately the masses are still buying what people tell them to buy and not thinking about what that purchase even is. Until the media changes their tune and stops doing all the market boosting for Pier 1, West Elm, even Anthro… think about it. Why do we love Anthro? Because all the items are made to look handmade. So why do these bloggers and magazines and whomever else keep talking about how amazing Anthro is? I can make you the same shirt that you pay $100 for from there and charge you the same… but you will never find me if I don’t get the publicity that they get.

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