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Topic: Crafty Business Advice Interview #1 - Leah Kramer  (Read 25002 times)
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« on: January 01, 2008 02:31:46 PM »

Here it is everyone, the very first Craft Business Advice interview!  We couldn't have had a better interviewee for our first time around than the ever productive Craftster creator herself, Leah Kramer!

Leah, you're involved in so many large scale craft related projects; which came first: Craftster, Bazaar Bizarre, or Magpie?

Bazaar Bizarre  came first chronologically. The very first Bazaar Bizarre happened in Boston in 2001. And I wasn't involved in it at all. I just saw a flyer for it and it looked intriguing. I was 26 at the time and I'd just started to want to get into crafting again after taking a break from it for a few years but I was really having trouble finding the right kinds of classes, books, magazines, etc that really spoke to me. For example I took a sewing class at a local adult ed and I learned a ton but we all had to sew the exact same pattern which was a giant boxy men's Hawaiian shirt. So I picked out this adorable fabric from Repro Depot but then in the end had this shirt I'd never wear. So I was so excited when I went to the first Bazaar Bizarre as a shopper and saw all these people being crafty but also making things that were funny, irreverent, cool, etc at the same time. In 2002 I got into the event as a vendor and now I'm one of the organizers.

Then in 2003 I thought it would be interesting to try and create a website ala Friendster or Napster but instead of sharing “friends” or "music" you could share uniquely hip craft ideas and of course “Craftster” was a perfect name because it pays homage to the other “—ster” sites but also can mean “crafty hipster.”
Then in 2004 four friends and myself – we'd all met through Bazaar Bizarre – decided to try our hand at opening a store. And thus Magpie was born.

What made you start Craftster?

I've always loved loved loved to make stuff. I remember as a kid in school absolutely loathing gym class and sports and just relishing any kind of arts and crafts time. And just generally speaking I was always cutting stuff up and gluing and stitching something. Then in high school crafts weren't really encouraged at all. You were only really encouraged to learn “fine arts” like painting and drawing. Other things that were “cool” to be into were sports, writing, music, etc. but certainly not crafts. So I didn't really do much along the lines of crafting except some embarrassing attempts to proclaim my love for my favorite bands such as painting the Nine Inch Nails logo on the back of my leather jacket using White Out. Lord help me. I promise you Nine Inch Nails was a lot cooler in 1990. Then in college I got really into making  complicated beaded jewelry with tiny little glass seed beads. I really loved making and selling the jewelry but it wasn't my style at all so I never wore my own work. At a certain point I really wanted to make crafts that were an extension of my own person style or sense of humor or just generally speaking crafts that were an extension of myself. So I started Craftster in hopes that there were others like me out there and we could inspire and help one another. Craftster was always meant as a small side project. I recall that the web hosting package I chose was $5/month and I actually had to weigh in mind whether it was worth the $60/year. I never expected Craftster to become what it has. Now the web hosting costs more than my rent.

Nine Inch Nails are still cool!  Right?.... Anyway, did you know a lot about the programming side of Craftster when you started or was is a learn-as-you-go process?

There is a ton of technical stuff that goes into Craftster. And luckily besides being a lifelong crafting addict, I'm also a lifelong geek. I first taught myself how to program in BASIC on my Apple IIE when I was a kid in the 1980s. And I majored in Computer Science in college. Actually I double majored in C.S. and Applied Mathematics. When I graduated from college I worked as a programmer for 8 years before starting Craftster. The job I had when I started Craftster was as a programmer for a company that makes really fun software for kids.

Your major must have been a big asset with running a site like this. Do you think that that has helped with Craftster's success?
I think that Craftster’s success is obviously in HUGE part to the people who come and post all of the amazing projects and just support one another's creativity. But being able to provide little tweaks to the software here and there has played a big part as well. It's also nice to be able to program because it can make it easier to accomplish more in a day. Just as an example, for Craftster’s banner ad system I wrote a “self-service” component that lets people choose their campaign, upload their banners and pay via PayPal. This kind of thing saves me lots of time so I can work on other aspects of Craftster.
« Last Edit: February 26, 2009 09:55:05 AM by jungrrl » THIS ROCKS   Logged

I guess this is goodbye.

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« Reply #1 on: January 01, 2008 02:37:55 PM »

Now, a brick and mortar seems like a big step for most Craftsters.  What led to the opening of the store?  Did you have an online store before? Or did you just jump into the deep end? Did the success of Craftster influence your decision to create Magpie?
There are 5 owners of Magpie altogether. We all just thought it would be fun to run a store and given the success of the Bazaar Bizarre in Boston, we thought people in the area would really love to shop for funky, not-your-typical handmade goods all year round. I personally had my own online store Craftastic.com before starting Magpie. It was fun to do that but I quickly ran out of time to make stuff for us and fulfill orders. The site's actually still up and running but it says something crazy like “Craftastic is on hiatus until Fall 2004. Please check back,” Ha! Crazy that I thought I'd ever have time for that again.

How did you finance the opening?
Well, that's sort of an interesting question. I know that for a lot people, opening a store means having a lot of money saved or taking out a loan and then you find the perfect location and for a few months you have professionals come in and revamp the whole space and buy nice new matching fixtures, etc, etc. The way we've always done it is that we've been as scrappy and resourceful was we can possibly be. In fact, we've moved the store twice (now we're in an absolutely awesome location) and every time we've done all the work ourselves—painting, renovating, moving all the stuff, etc. Cajoling as many friends as we can to help every time we've moved. And for fixtures and so forth I'd say a good 85% we've found on the side of the road on trash night or in Craigslist's free section. Doesn't sound very appealing, I suppose! But you'd be surprised what a coat of paint can do. For example, we found this amazing 3 tiered round table in someone's trash pile and painted in fun apple green. It all kinda works well with our aesthetic. It's also probably a good idea to point out that us Magpie owners all have our real “day jobs” and we have employees to work in the store. We run the store as best as we possibly can, but because none of relies on it for our main source of income, we really only need to break even. So I think this makes our store difficult to use as a point of comparison for people looking to open their own store.
How much of the inventory in Magpie is handmade and how much is mass-produced? Are the hand-crafted items there on consignment or do you purchase them upfront?  Are any of your crafts for sale in the store?

I'd say 90% of what we sell is handmade . And of the handmade stuff, perhaps 85% of that is consignment. We'd actually prefer to be able to buy more stuff upfront because it's easier for everyone involved. And more and more we're doing that once we know that someone's work sells really well for us.

I do have my own crafts for sale in the store. I don't have time to make much of anything anymore but sometimes I go on binges and make a whole bunch of things to sell which is fun.

Who decides what goes into the store and what goes into making that decision?

Each of us owners has been assigned the task of making decisions about different kinds of things we sell. For example, one partner does cards and paper products and one does t-shirts and one does jewelry etc. So for the most part we make decisions independent of one another unless it's a wholesale purchase in which case we all weigh in.

How do you find artists and develop relationships with them?

We're extremely lucky in that lots of people come to us with their work wanting to sell it at Magpie. We get lots of emails from people all over the country and lots of local people just stop in. And then besides that we're all big internet geeks and we're always spotting cool things online at Etsy or some blog somewhere. So often times we see something and we approach the artist about working with us.

A book is another huge deal.  How did that come about? Did you have to approach publishers with your idea?
The way the idea for the book came about was that my husband and I love to collect old cookbooks from the 1950s and 1960s. We just love poring over the recipes for things like creamed corn casserole with sliced up hot dogs and desserts that somehow involve heavy cream and marshmallows and mayonnaise. I can't really explain it but it amuses us to no end. And we both really love the style of photography and how the colors are so vibrant and super saturated. And then there's the super saccharine vibe they give off of with beautiful picture-perfect families with rosy cheeks and so on. So one day I came across what can only be described as the crafting equivalent of one of these cook books. It was a book put out by the Alcoa Tinfoil company in 1953 and it was full of the most hysterically tacky decorations made with gobs and gobs of wadded up tinfoil. After seeing that and being moved to try to find more craft books from that era, I thought that it would be amazing to collect this “slice of time in crafting history” into a book. 
Then, actually getting the book published was an interesting experience that I learned a lot from. It took 3 years to get the book done. And the reason for this was that at first I tried to go out on my own without a literary agent. I had the perfect publisher in mind and I really thought that I didn't need a literary agent. I thought literary agents were only for people writing novels and  forth. So I bought a book about how to write a book proposal, did that and sent it to this publisher I had in mind and they were interested. I worked with this publisher for about a year and they kept telling me that “the contract is coming soon” and finally when the book was almost done they presented me with a contract and the offer that was really bad. I was so naïve in the way I went about things with them. I just assumed that I'd get some standard contract with royalties and so forth but they actually offered me this tiny lump sum and no royalties and I was required to pay for all the of the photography myself out of that sum. It was insane. So I realized that I was over my head and luckily my friend's sister is a literary agent and she stepped in and became my agent and got me out of working with them. Then for the next 6 months she helped me rewrite the book proposal to be even better than the one I'd wrote and she shopped it around to other publishers and finally a wonderful publisher (Ten Speed Press) accepted the book idea.
So if I had to impart some words of wisdom about writing a book I'd say this: First take a crack and writing a great book proposal. There are lots of books and resources to find out what the structure of a book proposal should be. Then show your proposal to some agents and find someone who's interested it representing you. Then be prepared to pour lots and lots more time into your proposal with the help of your agent. I would not recommend to anyone that you go it on your own. Publishing contracts are so complicated. You do have to give your agent a certain percent of everything you make from the book, but the work that your agent will do to properly negotiate your contract is makes up for what you need to pay them and they take so much of the crazy details off of your plate.

I guess this is goodbye.

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« Reply #2 on: January 01, 2008 02:43:31 PM »

How do you manage your time between everything? What kinds of things have you learned to delegate and what do you choose not do delegate?

Oh boy. I think sadly the way I manage it all is that I work all the time and I don't do anything else. I can barely remember the last time I crafted something just for fun. So it's a bit of a problem but I'm getting better and better at delegating. Craftster now has full-time employee #1 – the amazing sweets4ever. I try to delegate as much as I can to her and she is awesome at taking care what I give her. And with Magpie, we have great employees there. I'm a bit of a control freak so I always have to remind myself it's ok to let other people do things even if it means they'll do it differently. And sometimes it's so hard to “be the boss” because you occasionally have to give people totally tedious and unglamorous  things to do and it's hard not to feel bad. But it gets a little easier as time goes on and I have to remind myself that any job out there isn't gonna be fun 100% of the time and that's ok.

How do you advertise your different ventures?  Do you use the same methods for each? Or do you find that certain methods are better for certain things?

With Craftster, Bazaar Bizarre and Magpie, I've never done any paid advertising. One of the great things about each of those projects is that they're unique and fun and the media seems to like that and each of those have gotten some amazing write-ups in the press. When it comes to Magpie and Bazaar Bizarre we do a fair amount of good ‘ol tangible printing up of postcards and flyers and then leaving them in places where we think our customer base frequents. And of course only in places where flyers are meant to go like the bulletin board at local coffee shops, etc. Because Magpie is a brick and mortar store, websites like Yelp have been a huge help to us. And for events like Bazaar Bizarre and events we hold at Magpie (artist receptions, etc) we make sure to spend time listing these on Going.com, Upcoming.org, Craiglist events section, some local online communities and so forth. Magpie has a LiveJournal which we use to blog about events and sales and new merch we get in. Magpie is going to get into using Facebook and MySpace but haven't found the time just yet. Magpie also has an email newsletter and we're so lucky that 2,000 people have signed up. I think it helps that people know that we broadcast our sales that way.
I think LiveJournaling and blogging  can be a great way to get the word out just generally speaking. In my “friends list” on LiveJournal I have lots of my favorite crafters many of whom sell their work and I love to see pictures of things they are working on. I'm more attracted to subscribing to someone's LJ or blog of they take really nice photos of their stuff. I can't tell you the number of times I've been tempted into to buying something from a fellow crafter after seeing them post about it on their LiveJournal.

Do you have any specific goals for the future with any of your ventures? Or are you playing it by ear?  Do you want to expand your business(es) and make them more commercially profitable?
Magpie and Bazaar Bizarre are really not meant to be money-making ventures. They are truly labors of love in every sense. For those of us involved in Magpie and Bazaar Bizarre, it's all about the love of helping crafters do what they do and also being about to participate in them ourselves as crafters.
Craftster on the other hand does need to make money because it's my income and there's no getting around that. Right now it's squeaking by financially and I feel good about the ways in which it does bring in money. For example the kinds of ads that are shown are something I can stand behind. My goal is to be able to make more money so that I'm able to hire more help and improve Craftster more and more but to try to do this in a way that benefits everyone as best that it can. As Craftster grows my usual 14 hour work days are getting longer and 14 hours is already enough if you know what I mean. And it's also worth noting that I've put 4 years of blood, sweat and tears in Craftster and I've sacrificed a lot to I hope some day the financial pay off can be a bit more than what has transpired so far.

How do you balance the commercial side of business with the altruistic side of crafting?

My thoughts on this have changed quite a bit over the years. Way back when I started Craftster and it started to get more and more popular, my bandwidth charges started to go through the roof I decided to try putting Google Adsense ads on the site (the text ads you see now). I agonized over this decision. When I started Craftster I honestly didn't think it would ever cost more than the $5/month hosting fees I was spending at the time and I never intended to show ads. Just the server costs alone are more than my rent now.
And then there's also the struggle regarding how much of a commercial element to let into an endeavor that's so inherently about indie lifestyle. Over time I feel myself opening up more and more to the idea that it's ok to allow for a certain amount of commercialism. One of the best things about the internet is that so much of it is absolutely free for the reader. But it's far from free for the person who provides for the website and we all have to accept that the reason it's free is because of ads and sponsorships and so on. So my hope is to always try to go the extra mile to make sure that any kind of commercial elements I introduce by way of ads or sponsorship are at least complementary to the Craftster community. It would be far easier to just sign up with some ad network that shows any old ads and you have no control over what they show ads for. I also believe in my heart that it's a better business decision to show ads for things people are interested in so that they actually look at them rather than try to ignore them.

So, the big question everyone is dying to know:  Was there a point when you made a conscious decision to move from craft as a hobby to craft as a business?  I think a lot of “part time” crafters are envisioning a singular defining moment when you just know that this is what you're going to do.  Did you have one of those moments?

I definitely tried to do everything at once for a good long time. I had my full-time job, I was filling orders on my website Craftastic.com, running Craftster, involved in starting up Magpie… And it was insane and I was extremely unhappy. I liked my “real job” but I felt like it was taking me away from everything I really wanted to be doing instead. And the hours that I wasn't at my real job were also frustrating because I wanted to make so much out of them and there never was enough of them. Pretty much all I thought about was finding a way to do something craft-related for a living. So that coupled with the fact that I felt like I had a viable opportunity to run Craftster as a job is what sealed the deal for me. It took longer than I thought it would to make Craftster into something that could pay me a living wage, but eventually it happened.

Do you have any advice for people on the fence about taking their craft business full time?

I think a really great idea, and something I wish I had done, would be to go and take some small business courses. I know in Boston there are tons of these that you can take at a local adult ed centers but also at a variety of government sponsored organizations that exist in every major city like the SBA (Small Business Administration). You can even find one-on-one counseling for free or cheap via the SBA and have someone help you work out a “business plan” so you can see if it's viable to do what you want or if you need to do more work or save more money before you can start to do what you want. I luckily landed on my feet without having done a lot of this upfront but it would suck try it out and have it not work out and give up your dream career  because you didn't prepare well enough. I did eventually start to take these kind of classes and got some free business counseling and it was really helpful.
I would also think it would be really helpful to get together with people in your area trying to do something similar so you can band together and help each other out. Craft Mafias are a great example of this idea.

I guess this is goodbye.

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« Reply #3 on: January 01, 2008 02:45:53 PM »

Do you have any formal arts training?

Nope. In fact I think when it comes to anything “artistic,” I am sorely lacking in any abilities. I can't draw a smiley face to save my life and even my handwriting is atrocious! This is one of the things I love about crafting. I feel like you can express your creativity in so many ways but the techniques are confined. Confined in a good way. So it's not like painting where you have this blank canvas where you have to be able to conjure up an idea and have the skilled hand to execute it with. With crafting there are parameters and ways that things fit together but within that you can express your artistic/creative side.

Where do you get your crafty inspirations?

For some strange reason I have a huge soft spot for two things:

1. illustrations, photos, typography, design, etc from the 1950s/1960s

2. chintzy, tacky and poorly made plastic kitsch
And I tend to love to make things that somehow incorporate those themes. I really can't explain why those things appeal to me as much as they do. But, man, let me loose in a store full of cheap plastic crap and I'm in heaven. If it was up to me there would be a dollar store, thrift store, botánica, and junk shop on every corner. It happens to be very convenient that the materials I'm inspired by are cheap and in plentiful supply.

What's your favorite craft?
It's funny because in college I was absolutely head over heels obsessed with making beaded jewelry out of those tiny little seed beads that you can weave together in really intricate ways. I was obsessed. I know I said that already but it's worth mentioning again. And the funny thing was that style of jewelry was not my style at all. I just loved to make it and give it away and sell it but I never wore it. Even though that kind of jewelry takes ages to make, I just loved how you add one teeny tiny little bead at a time and eventually it works up to be something amazing. This must be how people feel about knitting. I've only every knit scarves with big chunky wool but I imagine that people who knit complicated projects feel the way I did about beading. If anyone wants to see my bead work, you can go here but, please, no laughing. It was the 90’s!
I got sick of beading eventually and one of the things that really got me into crafting again was wanting to sew my own clothes. I'm not exactly a fashionista but I'm pretty picky about clothing. I remember that I went to visit my sister who was living in Manhattan and there was this giant street fair with tons of people selling stuff and one booth just had the most adorable, simple, a-line skirts made with all kinds of really cute cotton prints with Asian motifs. I wanted to buy like a 100 of them. And it got me thinking that I could learn to do that. So I took a sewing class and learned a ton from that. I love sewing and I can't wait to have more time to do it again some day.
I also love love love going to yard sales and flea markets and thrift stores and finding weird old things and making them into new things.

Do you ever have time to craft for fun or just cruise around Craftster anymore?

I don't have a whole lot of time for crafting anymore so as a result I've gotten really good at making stuff that's super quick. So maybe that's a silver lining there. I do think I'll eventually have time to craft again and I can't wait for that day to come. I do, however, cruise Craftster and my heart swells when I see all of the totally amazing things people take the time to share here on Craftster.

What's the strangest craft project you've ever seen?

I get asked this question from time to time and I never seem to have a great answer but off the top of my head I'd have to say it's a toss up between a skimpy pair of thong underwear made from an old necktie and this person who embroidered the bottoms of her feet. Eeeeyow. The latter one really happened and right here on Craftster. We decided it was a wise idea to remove that thread after discussing it with the person who posted it.

And finally, what do you want bedazzled onto your tombstone?

Oh man. That's a toughy. How about: 
Rock is dead.

Long live paper, scissors… and Craftster!
(And be sure to use E6000 to affix those rhinestones!)

Thanks Leah for all your time and energy (for the interview AND Craftster!). Remember everybody, you can help Leah out by become a Friend of Craftster!

*Most of these questions were submitted by your fellow Craftsters.  I did have to leave some questions out to keep a reasonable length.  If yours was omitted, I apologize!
« Last Edit: January 01, 2008 02:49:19 PM by jungrrl » THIS ROCKS   Logged

I guess this is goodbye.

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« Reply #4 on: January 01, 2008 02:51:18 PM »

Wow!  What a great interview!  I feel like I learned so much more about Craftster and Leah.  Great job, jungrrl!
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« Reply #5 on: January 01, 2008 03:58:40 PM »

wow! awesome interview, and leah, you're even more incredible than we thought! Grin

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« Reply #6 on: January 01, 2008 05:00:29 PM »

Thanks, jungrrl, for the great interview! It's so nice to see the "woman behind the curtain" of Craftster!  Smiley

Goodbye, Craftster. Thanks for the memories.

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« Reply #7 on: January 01, 2008 07:18:23 PM »

Nice to get to know Leah the person who created Craftster, this place we all love to come, and share.

Great work on the interview jungrrl!

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« Reply #8 on: January 04, 2008 11:31:42 AM »

Thank you so much for doing this, leah and jungrrl! It was a very awesome read Cheesy

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« Reply #9 on: January 04, 2008 02:28:18 PM »

what a fun interview! thanks so much jungrrl and leah!!!

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