It should come as no surprise that when two “crafty” minds come together, they will naturally craft something up together. That was, in fact, the case with handmade mavens Shannon Mulkey and Christy Petterson and their joint effort in creating the Indie Craft Experience. As makers individually, they knew they wanted to create an event that would bring their community together and showcase the artisanship of handmade goods. Now with 10 years of experience, they are sharing what they have learned along the biz-owning way. -Stephanie
Photography by Bonnie Heath
Why did you decide to start your own business?
Shannon: It all happened very naturally. I had a small handmade clothing business and wanted more opportunities to sell and showcase my work. I met Christy in October of 2004 at a monthly craft show hosted by Young Blood Gallery. We became fast friends and began planning our first event in January of 2005. I don’t think we realized that we were “starting a business” at the time! We were having fun and fulfilling a need in our community by creating a platform for other indie crafters and designers to show off and sell their work. Ten years later and we are still going strong!
Christy: I definitely didn’t realize we were starting something! I just really wanted a good show in Atlanta where I could sell my jewelry. After our first Indie Craft Experience (ICE) was a success in June 2005, we were like “well, we better do a holiday show now,” and then we just kept going.
When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?
Shannon: We didn’t start with a business plan or much of a plan at all. What we did have was a vision of what we wanted to create. That being said, our business is organic and fluid and we are not scared to try new things.
Christy: Despite not having a long-term vision for our business, we did have a very clear idea of what we wanted our event to be. We wanted our craft market to have a bit of a party atmosphere and to showcase crafts with an edgier aesthetic than other arts/crafts festivals in Atlanta.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
Shannon: Do everything that you possibly can yourself. I am a little bit of a control freak so this comes really naturally. This really helped in the beginning when we were on a shoestring budget.
Christy: My uncle, who owned several businesses in his lifetime, told me early on to make sure we had everything set up legally. To make sure we were doing our taxes and everything properly. He passed away unexpectedly this year, and I’m proud that he was able to see how much we had grown in recent years.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
Shannon: Money was a huge challenge. We did not pay ourselves for the first several years. ICE was a labor of love! We both maintained full-time jobs and ran ICE. We have grown and expanded our business to become more sustainable and supportive. It feels amazing to make money doing something that you love, believe in with your entire heart and built from scratch!
Christy: Our product has to appeal to a wide audience, both participants and attendees. It takes courage to kind of put yourself out there and assume that vendors will apply and attendees will come to shop. You’d think this aspect of the business would get easier over time, but every single event, I’m pretty much convinced that no one is going to show up! I’m always terribly (thankfully!) wrong.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
Shannon: That you will never make everyone happy and that’s okay as long as you are true to yourself and your vision. The sky is the limit!
Christy: It’s really hard work. There are constant challenges, but when you’re going through all of that to reach your own personal goal it is extremely fulfilling. I worked in a corporate environment for over 10 years where I just felt like a worker bee all the time. All that hard work and there wasn’t much reward beyond the paycheck.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?
Shannon: There have been many challenges along the way. We are always exploring new ideas and they are not always winners, but you never know until you put it out there. We started a handmade wedding event called Wedding Day Hooray in 2010. Although it was always a really beautiful event, it was a challenge to find a following since the wedding audience changes every year. We asked ourselves if we really wanted to be a part of the wedding world. We decided to stop producing the show in 2013. It just was not a strong enough part of our vision. On the flipside, we started a vintage event called Salvage. We are both super passionate about vintage and want it to be a strong part of our brand.
Christy: We had a venture this summer that was just totally unsuccessful. We opened a pop-up shop in a neighborhood that wasn’t quite ready for what we had to offer, during less-than-desirable retail months. There were some positive outcomes for us from participating in the program we were working with, however it was not profitable. The artists who were selling on consignment with us didn’t do well, and their inventory sat with us for months without selling. At the end of the pop-up shop, I decided to send a really honest account to all of our vendors telling them point-blank that we hadn’t sold much. I was really scared that our credibility and integrity would be damaged. I could be okay-ish with us losing money but I hated admitting failure to these people that we’ve worked so hard to have a good relationship with. Well, it turned out that our hard work paid off. We got so many replies from vendors thanking us for taking risks and trying new things and working hard and offering them opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. They offered us sympathy and kind words. Definitely our biggest failure monetarily but it felt like a success relationally. I think they appreciated our honesty.
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
Shannon: I do not always get enough personal time. I used to try and balance work and life. I saw them as two distinct areas. I now see my life as integrated. I don’t beat myself up for working a ton or for taking time off!
Christy: Well, we started ICE so we’d have a place to sell our creations. Over time it was apparent that we couldn’t really sell our stuff while managing the show so we quit participating in ICE. For years, we continued to participate in shows out of town, like the Renegade Craft Fair in Chicago and Crafty Bastards in DC, but this became too much to keep up with as well. So basically we created this show so we’d have a place to sell our stuff, and the show has grown into something so big that we don’t have time to craft much! It’s totally okay because I love what we are doing, but sometimes I miss it!
Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?
Shannon: Christy and I have brought together so many talented crafters, artists, designers and makers. We have created this amazing community of people from all over the country.
It is such an honor to be a part of something bigger.
Christy: I feel so honored when I hear that one of our vendors is making a living working full-time as a crafter and they attribute some portion of their success to participating in ICE. Either they launched their business at one of our shows or their business really took off after they participated, or ICE has been the thing that has really inspired them or kept them growing. We have helped launch or grow hundreds of small businesses. I feel so proud of that.
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
Shannon: There are so many!!
Mondo Beyondo online course
Queen of Manifestation
Recipe for Press by Amy Flurry
The Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebeau
The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau
Crafty Superstar by Grace Dobush
I Just Like to Make Things by Lilla Rogers
Christy: Also The Handmade Marketplace by Kari Chapin and Craft, Inc. by Meg Mateo Ilasco. I also highly recommend finding your people. Back in the day, when I first found the Glitter message boards on GetCrafty.com I felt like I had finally found my people. It was a major moment in my crafty life just knowing there were others like me out there. I’m not sure the best way to find each other now, but I know it is so important. Having people to swap ideas and resources with is so valuable. We always talk shop with Cathy and Torie from Crafty Wonderland (they’re like the PDX equivalent to us!) and it’s so helpful. Also read Bust magazine!
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
Shannon: Does your idea make you excited!? Is it something that you want at the center of your life? Be honest with yourself regarding strengths and weaknesses. Ask for help when you need it. Start! Jump in and have fun.
Christy: Are you ok with a life less certain? You might not know where your next paycheck is coming from. And your schedule might be all over the place, working in the middle of the night, working for days on end, never having a set schedule. Is this exciting to you? Or did your shoulders scrunch up and your stomach get in knots just reading that?!
With your own business, you have to have tons of self-motivation and the ability to keep yourself on track without a boss checking up on you. Do you have it in you?
Trust your gut. You are going to have so many decisions that you have to make all the time. If you are uncertain and indecisive, running your business is going to be difficult. Learn to trust your inner instinct as you make the best decisions for you and your business.