British craftspeople are benefiting from a rising demand for quality, locally made goods – and online marketplace Folksy is helping to orchestrate the boom.
One of the side effects of Brexit has been to change the way people think about where and how they buy their goods. As the cost of imports has gone up, and the UK’s relationship with the rest of the world has been thrown into uncertainty, more Brits have started looking closer to home when making certain purchases.
Positioned as The Home of Modern British Craft, Folksy is tapping into this return to local business. The online marketplace was founded in 2008 by James Boardwell, a digital designer who had spotted the growing energy of the UK craft community and saw an opportunity to build a web platform for people to showcase and sell their craft work.
Today Folksy makes over £1 million in sales and has a community of around 8,000 designer makers, covering everything from jewellery, embroidery and ceramics, to art, gift cards and clothing. This makes it much smaller than its NASDAQ-listed ecommerce rival Etsy, but that’s the whole point. As they make clear on their own website, the Folksy team “don’t have millions in VC funding”, nor do they consider themselves to be “a hot start-up”.
Instead, Folksy has deliberately remained small in order to cultivate a tight-knit community of British designers and makers. These craftspeople are fiercely loyal to Folksy, aiming to bring their own creativity to everything they do on the platform. Indeed many sellers will get involved in spontaneously creating marketing collateral for the site, such as videos and animations. All is born out of their love for the maker community.
Clare Gordon is a great example of this ethos. A maker with her own crochet business called Clare Gets Crafty, Gordon has been selling on Folksy since 2014. Last year she was approached to take on a part-time support role in recognition of her enthusiasm for engaging with the Folksy community, such as by contributing to its blogs and social media conversations.
The role, which makes her one of five paid members of staff at Folksy, sees Gordon provide support to both sellers who need advice on how to grow their business on the marketplace, and buyers who may need help with their orders. With its strict criteria around selling exclusively British, handmade goods, Gordon believes Folksy’s USP is proving to be particularly attractive in the current climate.
“I think it’s fair to say that Brexit is not helping the retail sector at the moment, but in a way that’s making people consider where they buy their products from,” she says.
“That’s where we come into play because we are British craft – people can find things that are literally made around the corner from where they live. That adds to the personal touch, because you can see who the maker is and know that you’re helping that person to build their business.”
The Multi-Hyphen effect
Besides the localism trend, Folksy is benefiting from the rising popularity of self-employment, freelancing and side hustles. Gordon recalls that when she decided to become self-employed by setting up her crochet business five years ago, it was seen as rather risky and unusual. Now, she notes that the idea of investing in your own skills and starting a new business is much more common. She refers, for example, to The Multi-Hyphen Method, Emma Gannon’s influential book from last year which advocates building your own working life and having multiple careers and pursuits.
Furthermore, designing and making are helping to meet the rising demand for jobs which promote mindfulness and therapy – mental health benefits which are often lacking in regular 9 to 5 jobs. And as environmental fears grow and people witness the decline of their local high streets, small-scale craft businesses are supporting the drive towards sustainability and employability within local economies too. Taken together, all of these factors are helping to generate significant growth across the craft industry at large.
“Everybody can do craft – I believe there’s a craft for everybody. It doesn’t matter how good you are at it either, anyone can feel the benefit of making and creating,” says Gordon. “I think a lot of retailers are tapping into that now, as you see a lot of craft kits around and a lot more books on the subject. Also, I’d say we’ve definitely seen a big trend towards DIY workshops, where people are going to learn new craft skills.”
Of course there’s a huge difference between making items like jewellery or soft furnishings, and actually turning it into a profitable business. It’s here that Folksy also provides vital support to sellers, offering guidance on every step of how to become a fully functioning SME. Folksy’s online sellers’ handbook covers all the technicalities, while its regular newsletters and blog provide tips on everything from maximising Pinterest as a sales platform, to navigating copyright law.
“A lot of our makers tend to be hobbyists – people with a full-time job who are making on the side in the evenings and weekends,” notes Gordon. “In other words, they don’t have a massive amount of time, so we do as much as we can to make it clear that these are the things to do to improve your selling.
“It’s one thing being a maker but it’s another to build your own business and learn about how to photograph things, do SEO, use social media properly, and so on. We really walk them through all of that with our blog posts because it can be a minefield.”
Growing a community
Another function of Folksy is to foreground individual makers as much as possible. Each week the site has a different ‘featured seller’, which involves promoting their craft goods on the marketplace’s homepage alongside an interview and photography of the maker in their workspace. This regular feature looks at the day-to-day life of the seller, how they got involved in making and their advice for others on how to grow a craft business.
These makers will sometimes also take over Folksy’s Instagram account, or conduct the interview with the following week’s featured seller, to further build the sense of community across the platform. “By showcasing our makers in these ways, it becomes very personal and you get a lovely insight into their life as a maker,” says Gordon.
Folksy has recently launched a number of new initiatives to deepen its engagement with sellers and spark more creativity across the community. One is to have a ‘theme of the day’ on its homepage (such as ‘picnic’ or a particular animal) so that makers spanning all kinds of crafts can tag their products to appear in that section. It’s another simple but effective way of boosting the visibility of makers on the site.
The recently launched ‘Folksy Friday Film’ will also see Folksy unveil a new mini movie every Friday in May and June in order “to spread some handmade joy”. All the films have been written, directed and edited by Folksy seller Leanne Warren, and the logo animation featured in the films is by seller Yas Bowley. Each film features the handmade creations of other Folksy sellers, such as a ‘ballerina mouse’ made by Erica-Jane Waters in the latest film, or the previous ‘zombie sloth’ created by Fiona Thomson.
As Gordon points out, much of this collaboration is organic and built on the strength of the Folksy community. “Leanne just started approaching other sellers to see if they wanted to be involved,” she explains. “Because we’re small it’s important our sellers are as engaged as they are because they just come up with these amazing ideas, and we get this fantastic content created by our makers.”
For the benefit of buyers, meanwhile, Folksy is continuing to play on those local attributes which are proving to be increasingly relevant in Brexit Britain. This includes a concerted push by Folksy to create a series of regional gift guides – the latest being for Bristol, Bath and Somerset – so that buyers can find sellers local to where they live.
It’s a subtle but significant way of championing local making by celebrating the skills and crafts specific to different British regions. “From doing the guides it’s been interesting to see how all the areas [across Britain] are very different,” says Gordon.
“They’ve all got their own history and cultural backgrounds and there are so many amazing things still being made in those areas. We’re really trying to build on that.”