A making renaissance is underway, with handmade practice and goods in global demand in a way not seen since the 1970s. In 2012, more than $900 million worth of merchandise was sold globally through the Etsy.com website—the ‘eBay for the handmade’—launched in 2005 to specialise in handmade and vintage items, and handmade supplies. Australian sellers were the fourth most significant source of items (just behind those in the US, the UK and Canada), representing a significant net export gain for Australian creative small-enterprises. Etsy.com is just the highest-profile tip of a much larger iceberg that includes a plethora of online retail sites specialising in handmade small-scale creative production. Alongside more traditional retail options such as direct and commission sales, these sites are attractive to many creative sole traders and are enabling an explosive expansion in the international creative marketplace. Notably, women make up the majority of online designer-maker micro-entrepreneurs, often establishing a small business as a means by which to balance caring responsibilities with paid employment and/or bring in top-up family income.
However, the ease of establishing online shopfronts hides the complex work required to start and run a small business, especially one in an increasingly globally competitive space with isolated producers and narrow profit margins. This raises new challenges for craftspeople and designer-makers, who not only require practice-based skills but new entrepreneurial skill-sets—both technical and personal—to operate successfully as a micro-enterprise in this emerging global market. A creative micro-economy that emphasises ‘long tail’ buying ‘directly’ from the maker offers both creative graduates and more established designer-makers micro-entrepreneurial pathways not previously open to them. But to maximise the potential of these opportunities at a practical level, skills in professional practice need to be complemented by other capacities. Notably these include the skills to successfully negotiate the use of social media as a marketing tool which requires the promotion of producer self-identity (including the maker’s home and family relationships) as part of the value being sold.
Therefore employing methods including semi-structured interviews with established handmade producers; ‘1-up’ monitoring of design graduates across 3 years to longitudinally analyse the contemporary experience of establishing a creative career post-graduation; and a historical mapping of Australia’s arts and crafts support organisations, the primary aim of the project is to determine how online distribution is changing the environment for operating a creative micro-enterprise, and with it, the larger relationship between the public and private spheres. A key research question will be: what are the ‘self-making’ skills required to succeed in this competitive environment?