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VOL. 41 | NO. 44 | Friday, November 3, 2017

A more upbeat Handmade Tale

Middle Tennessee ‘makers’ find their spaces, markets

By Linda Bryant

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E-commerce and popular online sites such as Etsy and Amazon have revolutionized how artisans sell their handmade items – globally, nationally and locally.

And, at this time of year, many of these enterprising crafters are spending just about every waking hour prepping for the online holiday season.

Middle Tennessee is a hotbed for artisans, crafters and inventors, often referred to as makers in today’s cultural and commercial marketplace. Many see the opportunity to build a real brand for their creations with online e-shops, and they are able to grow and add employees. Some are content to make a side-income from their passion and others are hoping to transform their part-time startups into full-time gigs.

One thing’s for certain: While it’s possible to make a full-time living as a maker-artisan selling on e-commerce sites, it’s not an easy or predictable career path.

Many local makers describe 10- to 14-hour days filled with a dizzying array of responsibilities – from managing inventory, packing orders and hustling to get them to the post office and painstakingly crafting custom work – a gold necklace personalized for a friend, hand-crocheted baby blanket or an original painting of a country music star.

Meanwhile, the Etsy online marketplace — with over 1.5 million artisans and makers sellers and over 20 million buyers — has grown so competitive in recent years that many of these crafty entrepreneurs are busy adjusting their business models to include more sales outlets that include craft fairs,  Facebook and personal websites.

Many are constantly adding new products and designs in hopes of attracting new buyers and describe a life that’s at once creative and exciting, but also demanding and unpredictable.

Is the Etsy honeymoon over?

Amazon, the world’s largest retailer with a customer base of about 300 million and counting, responded to the demand for handmade goods by launching Handmade at Amazon in 2015.

Although Etsy spearheaded the revolution in the handmade retail market online 12 years ago, it is now vulnerable to competitors, not the least of which is Handmade at Amazon.


Jennifer Cater, a Nashville-based artisan who operates The J Cater Shop on Etsy, recently decided to sell on both platforms. Her store, The J Cater Shop, sells handmade fabric buttons and other decor and modern, vintage and upcycled jewelry.

“I started on Etsy because I knew it was the go-to place for handmade artisans,” Cater says. “But Etsy has become oversaturated, and I have recently opened a shop on Handmade at Amazon.”

“I have made it my goal to do this full time,” Cater adds. “I’m willing to keep expanding and building my business, and I’m determined to make it work. Right now, I’m working part time at my son’s daycare, but otherwise I’m focused on getting my stuff out there in front of people (in the community) and building my online presence.”

Cater worked as a mental health counselor before deciding to work on her craft business.

Beth “Freshie” Lawrence, owner of Freshie & Zero, hand makes jewelry out of her downtown Nashville studio.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

How much money does she actually make selling her handmade items? She declined to give an exact revenue figure but says she’s making enough to give major momentum to her goals.

“There have been several weeks when I was making more with my handmade stuff than I was being a mental health therapist with a master’s degree,” she adds.

Indeed, Cater has jumped into the maker movement head first. For example, she is highly active in helping local makers and artisans join together to find new ways to sell their goods in the community.

She is administrator of Handmade Nashville with more than 900 handmade-only artisans and crafters in the extended Nashville area. She recently helped launched the Nashville Curiosities Collective, an ensemble of artisans and makers specializing in the geeky, nerdy, kitschy, macabre, unusual and weird.

Both groups have holiday sales planned in the community.

In conjunction with Small Business Saturday on Nov. 25, Handmade Nashville is hosting their second annual Handmade Nashville Holiday Market, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Red Caboose Park in Bellevue. More than 70+ handmade artisans and crafters, food trucks are booked.

On December 3, the Nashville Curiosities Collective is hosting its first event, Merry Mayhem, at Fat Bottom Brewing in the Nations, 12-6 p.m.

A full-time living?

A completed “Storied” necklace (sentimental notions, necklace with meaning) by Beth Lawrence.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

A year ago, Jessica Pena, had an idea come to her “out of the blue” to sell her jazzed-up mason jars online.

“I had just moved into an apartment with my fiancé last year, and I wanted to make the place feel like ours as far as decor,” Pena explains. “I already had the obsession of hoarding mason jars, so I took some chalk paint and made a complete centerpiece out of it with a floral bouquet included.

“I was already an avid Etsy shopper online, so the idea wasn’t too farfetched for me,” Pena adds.

“I’d always been an advocate for shopping local and shopping small. I figure if I could get creative and expand designs and how I decorate the jars, I could provide centerpieces and statement piece jars for someone else’s home decor.”

Roll forward to 2017. Although Pena, who lives in Mt. Juliet, is still working at her job as a photo specialist at a local drug store, she’s bringing in a healthy side income of a few hundred dollars a month.

One of her main strategies for finding customers is to offer bulk orders to brides or event planners. She is also a member of Handmade at Amazon.

Jessica Pena’s mason jars

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“I try to be as generous as possible with discounted prices for my customers, because we are all looking out for a deal when we look for centerpieces for special events,” Pena says, adding that she laser focuses on using social media to promote her products.

“As soon as I discovered the ability to be an online presence through social media, I began to thrive,” she points out.

While Pena is just getting started, Beth Lawrence, creator of Freshie & Zero, is an old pro at Etsy.

The fine jewelry maker not only makes a full-time living from her silver and gold creations, she employs four people as well as seasonal workers and has a studio in the Wedgewood Houston district.

“I joined Etsy about a year after Etsy launched (in 2005), not long after I started Freshie & Zero,” Lawrence says. “This has been my full-time job since 2008.”

Lawrence’s jewelry is based on simple and geometric designs and made of semi-precious metals, and generally sells in the $30 to $50 range. She focuses on two main styles – one is very angled and geometric, and the other is softer with lots of curves and circles.

“The jewelry is all hammered which gives it an organic, handmade aesthetic,” Lawrence notes.

Freshie & Zero’s branding focuses heavily on the fact that it’s not mass produced in a factory. The company’s tagline is: “Made with love and a hammer in Nashville, Tennessee.

“I think people like supporting real people instead of just a faceless brand,” Lawrence adds. “Even Target hosts pop-up maker collections these days.

Some earrings and chains are seen hanging from a jewelry holder as Beth “Freshie” Lawrence works on some pieces in the background.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“I think a product is more compelling when you can interact with the person who designed it or know where it came from,” Lawrence says.

“It’s fun to follow someone and get to know more about them, and then when you buy one of their products, you get a little happy thought such as, ‘this person lives in Missouri and just renovated an old bank for their studio’ instead of ‘here’s this thing I bought.’ It’s more satisfying, a more human connection.”

Lawrence initially used her Etsy shop as a main platform for sales. She also blogged a lot about her creations and went to outside events. But as the company grew, her business strategy grew to include more.

Lawrence still sells on Etsy and from her own website, but she’s branching out in another major way.

“We have transitioned to mostly wholesale now, so my main source of sales comes from wholesale trade shows including the Atlanta International Gift & Home Furnishings Market held twice a year in Atlanta.

“I do craft fairs occasionally because I love them, but it’s hard to schedule them in between wholesale orders and my family time.

“I do have some local craft shows coming up including Crafty Bastards, Centennial Crafts Fest and Made South in Franklin.’’

This is one of the popular necklaces sold at Tambra Cranston’s Handmade at Amazon store, A Charmed Impression.

-- Submitted

Like every maker we spoke with for this story, Lawrence is knee-deep in preparing for the holiday season.

“We start prepping for Christmas in July in some cases,” Lawrence acknowledges. “We get advance notice of really large orders, so we start working on them way ahead of time.”

Hard work = success

Tambra Cranston, creator of A Charmed Impression, is another example of someone who’s been making a full-time living making fine-crafted jewelry using online ecommerce platforms.

Cranston and her husband both work full time in their 300-square-foot home studio in the Westhaven neighborhood of Franklin making and distributing made-to-order jewelry that “celebrates life and its special moments.”

The pieces generally are delicately crafted gold and silver necklaces, bracelets and earrings, many of which feature personalized charms or symbols that denote family relationships.

Popular offerings have average price points from about $25 to $60. Also popular are tiny pieces that feature charms of creatures such as unicorns, cats, angels, cats and bees.

Cranston’s journey as an artisan predates Etsy. She started selling her hand-crafted jewelry 20 years ago after becoming discouraged by corporate America on the West Coast.

“It is refreshing when people come across something that is handmade and unique,” says painter Tim Hooper. “ I want to participate in that kind of connection.”

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“I was forced into the realization that no matter how long I worked or excelled at the job – working nights, weekends and holidays and even winning performance awards – I was 100 percent dispensable. It was a brutal and sad realization, but I was forced to look at other opportunities around me.”

Cranston already made and sold jewelry as a hobby, so she decided to put her creations on eBay in its early days in the late 1990s.

“I saw some potential there; it was like a whole new world,” she says. “Sales just poured in, and I made $5,000 in the first month. It was a monumental thing for me in my twenties.”

Cranston adds she’s worked full time at her business since those beginning days selling on eBay, but she’s seen her methods and platforms change with the times and the economy.

“I did eBay for two years, and then I moved to wholesale and selling in boutiques and fine arts galleries. I did that for a decade,” Cranston explains. “Most people start out in retail and move to wholesale, but I did the opposite. In wholesale you are doing twice the work for half the money.

“I did the opposite because I feel that working directly with customers is more exciting,” she adds. “I get to talk to the person who’ll be wearing my work. It’s so much more satisfying.”

These microphone lamps are created by Jason Cunningham of Cason’s Lanterns.

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Cranston had success selling on Etsy for several years, but recently decided to make the transition to Handmade at Amazon.

“Etsy was good to us for a while, and we were able to make a comfortable living. I was doing original work, and it was well received by the public,” she says.

“But Etsy began to grow and evolve in a different way. We started watching Etsy (sales) go down and Amazon (sales) go up, and now it feels like the opportunity is at Amazon. They have gone through changes and several CEOs, and now there are vendors coming in from places like China.”

Etsy’s changing retail environment meant that Cranston’s hand-crafted goods were competing with cheaper merchandise from overseas.

She recommends beginning makers and artisans who want to sell online use more than one platform.

“Handmade artisans who rely on Etsy as their sole source of income are probably going to fail,” Cranston explains. You have to adapt. Etsy is no longer the place to make yourself stand out.”

Cranston moved to Franklin from Seattle about a year ago because she and her husband saw Middle Tennessee as a friendly to entrepreneurs, a safe place to raise a family and affordable, especially compared to Seattle.

She did not want to reveal her exact revenue but says her family is able to create the lifestyle they want, although it comes at the prices of working long, hard hours.

“It’s a lot of work, often 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week,” she adds. “We are doing well and were able to buy a house. We can take a vacation this year, and we are both living comfortably.’’

Although the Cranstons have no full-time employees, they are training two part-time workers who can help during crunch periods.

“But I do have to emphasize that it’s hard work, and you have to be willing to go adapt through changes in the economic landscape. If you are coming on board passively nothing will happen for you. With a lot of perseverance and dedication I don’t really see a top on income you can make.”

‘Feast or famine’

Tim Hooper, who’s Etsy store is called Mr. Hooper, has sold his original paintings, drawings and prints on Etsy since 2011, although he’s made a living as an artist for a much longer period of time.

Hooper’s paintings, which he calls “pop surrealist” and sell for $30 to $700-plus, often feature quirky images of animals, robots and cultural figures such as Johnny Cash, Andy Warhol and James Brown.

“I was self-employed from 2001 to 2016,” Hooper recounts. “I primarily made my living from traveling to art fairs, gallery shows and selling on Etsy. Just last year, I took a day job, which has been really good because the company I work for offers great health insurance.”

“There are always great months and bad months and it’s feast or famine when you work like this,” Hooper says, adding that he didn’t scale back to part-time work as an artist because he wasn’t making enough money.

“I made a middle-class income, but the problem was the price of our insurance in the end,” he acknowledges. “It was $800 a month, and we thought that was just ridiculous.”

Hooper says she agrees with others who say Etsy has grown a bit unwieldy and watered down.

“People used to be able to find me on Etsy in an organic way,” he explains. “They just found their way to me somehow. That doesn’t happen very often now. Most of my Etsy customers are people who have already purchased from me.

“Etsy has grown so big,” he adds. “It’s muddy and you can’t find things easily because there are so many millions of people on it. It’s not nearly as effective as it was before. I will probably go to new platforms soon.”

Hooper used to visit about 15 art fairs a year, averaging about $4,000 per event. Now that he’s working full time he’s doing five or six art fairs a year. He’s also doing more commissioned and commercial work.

“I recently did a painting of Ernest Hemingway for a man in Key West,” he says.

And even though Hooper has scaled back his artistic lifestyle for the work-a-day world, he says he’ll never quit completely.

“The world is so loaded with slick, mass-produced things,” Hooper adds. “It is refreshing when people come across something that is handmade and unique. I want to participate in that kind of connection.”

Jason Cunningham is another local maker who works a full-time job and maintains his Etsy store, Cason’s Lanterns, as a part-time endeavor.

Cunningham, who works a full-time, white-collar job at ASCAP dealing with music royalties, started his Etsy store in 2011 because he was inspired to use his creativity. He also wanted to offer his young nephew, Cason, a project they could participate in together.

Cason is only 11, but Cunningham gives him a hands-on role in the business.

“He’s very connected to it,” he says. “I’m going to give him the opportunity to take it and run with it if he wants to. We developed the idea together.

“We create unique, one of a kind home décor pieces (called bubble lanterns),” Cunningham adds. “We take lanterns and add LED lights to them with clear ornaments.”

Just because Cunningham’s business is part time doesn’t mean he doesn’t devote a lot of time to it or make money.

“I started (the business) with about $1,500 and sold two lanterns my first year,” he says. “Last year we made $10,000.”

“Our strategy is simple,” Cunningham explains. “We want to get in front of people with our unique items.”

That means, like many other makers, Cunningham and his nephew are doing more than selling on Etsy.

“We are participating in Christmas Village 2017, which should be big, and we are on Theknot.com (a wedding website),” he says.

“Our next progression would be a kiosk space at Opry Mills and eventually a freestanding store front space. We are also looking more at the wedding industry and may create a line of bubble lanterns where people can rent them out for events.”

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