With the recent launch of the Etsy Design Awards (AKA the Etsies) and with applications to the Spoonflower Small Business Grant open through August 15, 2019, we wanted to explore why craft businesses participate in awards competitions, and what’s to be gained.
As with any business opportunity, a craft business might choose to pursue, entering a competition is most valuable if you do your due diligence and clearly identify what you want to get out of the experience, win or lose. Every business owner I spoke with discussed the value they derived from choosing the right competition for their stage in business or identifying their goals before they began their application.
When Craft Industry Alliance Community Manager Erin Dollar entered the West Elm Local grant contest in 2014, her goal was to use the $25,000 USD grant to scale up her business, including by investing in manufacturing fabric yardage to meet customer demand.
West Elm selected the finalists, then the winner was chosen by public voting. Erin did not win, which she found disappointing, but she does consider the experience to be positive overall. “I remember getting a lot of support and congratulations from my community, and the recognition that came with being a finalist was really nice. While I don’t know that it tangibly led to more sales, I was invited to sell my work wholesale to West Elm for their LOCAL program after the competition, and my products were sold in six of their California stores.”
Quilt designer Sylvia Schaefer entered the Craftsy Quilt Designer Fellowship in 2017 in part, she says, because “it would have been silly not to,” at that stage in her career. “At the time, I was very much trying to get serious about turning quilt pattern design into a business, and that was exactly what the fellowship was promising to help the winner do. It was clear to me that the prize package, key among which was the opportunity to have a booth at Fall Quilt Market, would expose me and my designs to the quilting world in a way that would have been very difficult, and much slower, to accomplish on my own. I didn’t expect to win, but it was one of those situations where there was nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
Schaefer did go on to be awarded the fellowship by a panel of industry professionals. At the time, she had been selling her patterns online as PDFs, and winning the fellowship led her to develop a print pattern line to sell at Quilt Market. The recognition and association with Craftsy led a distributor to agree to carry the line, as well.
In 2018 the process changed to involve a public-voting round, and Schaefer is grateful she participated before that change. “It seems like [public voting] gives an advantage to whichever applicant has amassed the most followers, since of course everyone posts about the voting on social media and urges their followers to go vote for them. I did not have a huge following when I applied, and so suspect I’d have been at a disadvantage had public voting been taken into account, regardless of the quality of my designs.”
Quilt Market was not well attended that year, in the aftermath of flooding in Houston, but having her print line ready enabled her to reach out to a major distributor to request that they carry her patterns. Their response was, as she put it, “Oh, I know who you are, you’re the Craftsy fellowship winner. Of course, we want to.”
In addition to the nudge to move into print pattern sales, Craftsy prepared a short documentary about Schaefer’s work just as they were shifting their focus to include entertainment-focused content (the company has since rebranded as Bluprint, primarily a streaming service). “I am quite certain that this increased my visibility and name recognition tremendously—I’m still meeting quilters who tell me they know me from watching the video.” Schaefer has maintained a strong relationship with Bluprint and is continuing to do work with them.
Sheri Cifaldi-Morrill was awarded the Craftsy fellowship the previous year (the first year of the program), and says “it was the non-salesthings that came out of it [that] were almost more valuable” than the Quilt Market booth and other tangible rewards, though of course, those were valuable, too. When she entered the contest, she saw the effort as a marketing and networking opportunity for her new business, Whole Circle Studio. Intangible benefits she identified include industry, sales, shop, personal and media connections; advice from other designers leading up to Quilt Market; and the beginnings of brand awareness and visibility amongst consumers.
Stephanie Carswell, Creative Director of craft-kit company Hawthorn Handmade in the United Kingdom, was working to raise the company’s profile, and entered the UK-based Craft Business Awards with that in mind. She also entered the Best of Craft Awards and the newly launched Etsies. She sees the application process itself to be a valuable business exercise, explaining that “it’s great and fun to answer the questions they ask and it makes you think about your business in a different light.
Hawthorn Handmade won Best Emerging Craft Brand 2019, and Stephanie used the exposure to turn congratulatory conversations into “much bigger opportunities,” in addition to getting press exposure and using the award to help attract higher quality applicants when she advertised a new managerial position in the company.
She sums up her experience in a way that seems to encapsulate what everyone I spoke with had to say about their reasons for applying to awards or grant programs: “I think that as [the applications] don’t take much time, you really don’t have much to lose, and depending on your business, the benefits could be life-changing. It makes you think hard about how you’re presenting yourself and your products and business to the outside world and can be a great exercise in taking a step back and working on your business whilst doing something that’s really fun.”
Kim Werker is a Vancouver-based writer who is building a community of creative adventurers.