Grace Dobush grew up in a creative household; her mother did a lot of quilting and needlepoint, and both of her grandmothers were crafty as well.
She started really getting involved in the craft scene while in journalism school. She would take art classes alongside her journalism classes, because she liked to get her hands dirty.
She took a book-binding class freshman year that really resonated with her. Even when the class was over, “I kept making books and trying different techniques. I started making books for friends or acquaintances who might need a book for a special occasion like a wedding or a baby,” Grace said.
The first time Grace sold her crafts at a show, she was not very successful. She broke the ice to sell at her first event, but this church basement craft sale was just not her market. It was a traditional small town craft event, and her stuff was “weird” by comparison.
Later shows were more successful, and she has since sold books, hand-printed cards, hand-carved stamps, and kits for people to do their own book binding.
When Craft Became Commerce
Grace started her craft journey “pre-Etsy” in 2001, when e-commerce was just starting to get its foothold. She was among a group of crafty women who were starting to sell their crafts online, and joined crafty message boards with many who were in same boat. Grace continued making and selling at craft shows after college. She also started working at a newspaper, and crafts were great creative outlet for her nights and weekends.
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The very first website she used to sell her crafts was one she hand-coded in HTML. “I encouraged people who wanted to buy my cards to mail me a check or money order…” Grace laughed, “Some of that stuff was very old school.” She did do some online selling, but always did better selling in person at shows – people love to see and touch before they buy.
When she moved from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati eight years ago, she wanted to keep participating in craft shows, but found there weren’t as many in her new city. “I met another woman who was looking for the same kind of thing, and we realized, ‘I guess we have to start it’ – and Crafty Supermarket was born in 2009,” she explained.
The event also served as a book release for Crafty Superstar, a business guide Grace created for part-time crafters she wrote and published the same month as the Crafty Supermarket in November of 2009.
Crafty Superstar features stories and tips from other mid-career makers, of their experiences making and selling. Grace had read a business book for crafters around 2008, but its focus was going from crafter to designer — someone who licenses their work out to manufacturers, and maybe doesn’t even make things by hand anymore. Grace saw an opportunity to fill the niche for people like herself, who wanted to do crafts part-time and be successful. Her book is all craft business advice from real crafters. She also published an updated version, The Crafty Superstar Ultimate Business Guide in 2012.
If You Build It, They Will Come
Response to the first Crafty Supermarket was amazing. They had booked the back room at Northside Tavern, a little bar room with 15 tables, and 1,000 people showed up. “We were unprepared for that!” she recalled.
At the first show, Grace and her co-organizer met the director of the Clifton Cultural Arts Center (CCAC). Grace had thought that it was a wonderful space, but thought it would be too expensive or too big for the supermarket. To her surprise, the CCAC director approached them, introduced herself, and said “We want you to do something like this for us!”
Over the past six years, Grace and her business partner have grown to two shows each year: one in the spring at CCAC, and a larger holiday event at Cincinnati Music Hall. The spring show is limited to just 45 vendors in their smaller space. The most recent Crafty Supermarket, at its bigger venue, Music Hall Ballroom, had 100 vendors and 6,500 shoppers –“It’s bananas!” Grace exclaimed.
“It’s an Interesting Time to Be a Crafter”
The 2015 holiday show was also the first show at which Grace did not sell her own work. It was a change for her, but felt like a natural transition. “I found that my real talent lies more in organizing events and making things happen, than just making stuff myself. I had been making stuff to make stuff in the past few years, and decided to take a step back to focus on the big picture,” she said. She has also been experiencing a lot of growth in her freelance journalism career.
Craft profitability is a hard thing to judge, as well as being difficult to accomplish. “It’s hard for crafters to price their work in a way that is ensuring them a good hourly wage for their time, but that is also anywhere near market rate for mass produced items. I think a lot of crafters underprice themselves,” she explained, “It means a lot of makers aren’t making a living wage.”
For the most success, crafters need to be filling some type of need that’s not being met, or a new and creative way. The craft businesses Grace has seen doing really well are either focused on novelty products that you can’t find anywhere else, or those that are very high end, like fine jewelry with precious metals.
On top of being a successful freelance journalist for publications and websites ranging from Cincinnati Magazine to the Washington Post, and co-running the Crafty Supermarket, Grace is now an organizer for a brand new event: Midwest Craft Con, a craft business conference held February 19-21, 2016 in Columbus, Ohio.
There have been other creative conferences in the past that have focused on crafters, and for some of which Grace has been a speaker, but they tend to be on the coasts – Portland, San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C. There was a boom in craft cons for a while, but not much recently. Those that are still around are often geared toward beginner makers who are just starting out. Once again, Grace saw a niche to fill: an event for mid-career makers who want to dive deeper into trickier business topics.
“You’ve already started your business, a couple years into it maybe. Your problems are different than when you started,” she explained. “You’re not so much worried about pricing or getting your online store started, you’re trying to figure out how to balance marketing with making stuff, or you’re trying to figure out how to break into wholesale, etc.”
Midwest Craft Con aims to answer those questions, as well as bigger picture things. There are three different “tracks” the workshops fall into: legal/financial; marketing and publicity; and a holistic track talking about mindfulness, diversity, creativity, and goal setting. There will also be social time and fun activities for socialization that crafters don’t get at other craft events because they’re busy selling.
One of the sessions at Midwest Craft Con is about the future of the handmade movement. Things have changed drastically since Grace got involved several years ago. There are more people trying to make and sell, more events and online resources for selling, and big-box retailers and manufacturers are imitating indie style.
Grace’s future plans? Keep growing the Crafty Supermarket events, and planning for another Midwest Craft Con even though first one hasn’t happened quite yet! She will continue to use her talents, especially writing and event organization, to fill needs in the local and regional craft communities.