Nora Abousteit, center, with some of the CraftJam team.

Photo courtesy of CraftJam.

“What I like doing is building community,” Nora Abousteit tells me. “That’s been the red thread running through everything I’ve built.” And Abousteit has built a lot.

Back in 2006, when the crafty internet felt new, Abousteit created one of the first online sewing communities. Then, she founded Kollabora, a venture-backed social platform for makers. Her latest project, CraftJam, is providing group craft experiences for some of the biggest companies in the world. Through it all, she’s been bringing people together through the joy of making things.

Building BurdaStyle

Half German and half Egyptian, Abousteit began her community-building journey in Munich back in 2006. Her employer at the time, Hubert Burda Media, was looking to bring BurdaStyle, a sewing magazine stared by the founder’s mother, to a younger audience. Abousteit raised her hand to help. “I always had a passion for crafting and made my first money sewing. And I always liked technology, so I pitched to get a budget and do it,” she says.

Earlier that year she’d met Etsy founder Rob Kahlin while he was visiting Munich. When she and a colleague moved to New York a few months later they set up some desks inside Etsy headquarters in Brooklyn and got to work bringing BurdaStyle online.

Abousteit wireframed the site, created the patterns, got the samples sewn, and did photo shoots. BurdaStyle.com officially launched in 2007 as an online community for sewing enthusiasts. “We grew phenomenally,” she says. “It was really amazing. People were so grateful.” Five years later they had approximately 1 million members.

CraftJam’s Soho storefront.

Photo courtesy of CraftJam.

Participants making things together at a CraftJam experience.

Photo courtesy of CraftJam.

A bigger idea

But Abousteit’s vision for an online craft community was more expansive than BurdaStyle allowed. She wanted to be able to sell patterns from more than just a single brand, and she wanted to bring in other crafts beyond sewing. “With the rise of YouTube people don’t just pick one craft anymore, they don’t discriminate. We had people on BurdaStyle posting other crafts. I said we have to do something here.”

So, in 2011 she created a business plan for a new site: Kollabora, a social platform for makers. On Kollabora there would be patterns and projects for sewing, knitting, crochet, and jewelry-making, along with ecommerce (each project had an accompanying shopping list of products you could buy right there), and user-generated content.

Abousteit’s goal for Kollabora was to create an easy entry point into crafting for beginners.  “How do you guide somebody that didn’t learn this from their mother or their father or in school?” she asked. The focus on beginners differentiated the community from its peers, including Ravelry and PatternReview, where she felt a beginner could easily feel overwhelmed by information overload. She also invested heavily in the design of the site making it visually appealing and approachable. “We were the first ones to have really big pictures on the web featuring craft. You have to see something that you respond to right away as somebody that isn’t crafty,” she explains. “Maybe you’ve seen it in West Elm or Anthropologie and, as a beginner, you want to make it.”

All of this required money. She raised $580,000 in angel funding to build the site, and over the course of five years, a total of $3 million in venture capital (Khosla Ventures, Allen & Company, 500 Startups, and Hubert Burda Media were among the investors).

Needlefelting is a CraftJam project.

Photo courtesy of CraftJam.

Making leather accessories is another.

Photo courtesy of CraftJam.

Two realizations

Kollabora got some traction, but by the end of 2015 Abousteit came to two key realizaitons. First, although people did want to learn crafts and connect online, what they really craved (and were willing to pay for) were in-person experiences.

That year the Kollabora team had hosted a book launch event in collaboration with Taunton Press and Abousteit had decided to try an experiment. “You know what? Instead of doing it as a marketing event, why don’t we just sell tickets?” They tried it, and the tickets sold out immediately. She realized she was onto something. “I took a deeper look and I realized that this is what people really wanted, to have an experience and to be together. They want that in person instruction. You make an appointment and you pay for it. You go there and you just have these two hours of Zen and bliss.”

A second realization, and one that was impossible to predict when she founded Kollabora in 2011, was that competing with Instagram is very, very hard. “What we didn’t see when we started working on it was the rise of companies like Pinterest and Instagram, Google and Amazon. They just kind of vacuumed it all up. They had this exponential growth and then dominated the market. You couldn’t have predicted that.”

Glass etching is one of the popular CraftJam project.

Photo courtesy of CraftJam.

The second pivot

And so she pivoted again. In March 2016, Abousteit launched CraftJam, a craft workshops and events business in New York City. “It was really an evolution,” she says.

As for Kollabora? She’d like to find it a new owner if the right party were to come forward. “I hope that one day somebody wants to continue it,” she says, “but it needs to be the right partnership. There’s a lot of data, a big membership, and it just needs to be the right company doing it in the right way.”

From virtual to personal

CraftJam is, in some ways, Abousteit’s most basic business concept yet. The company’s tagline says it all: “Make skills, and friends, hands on.” A CraftJam consists of a teacher and a group of students creating a project together. What could be simpler? “I mean basically we’re really a sewing circle in the 21st century,” she says.

The goal of each experience is to be accessible to everyone, and to be social. Paivi Kankaro, CraftJam’s Head of Content Production, explains, “A lot of people come through our events and the first thing they say is ‘I’m not crafty. I’m not creative.’ People have a need to say this disclaimer.” Each project is broken down into basic steps and the teachers are hosts as much as they are instructors. “The combination of quality and hospitality is super important for us,” Kankaro says.

CraftJam does birthday and bachelorette parties, but increasingly they’re doing corporate functions as well. In the #metoo era Abousteit is finding that companies are searching for new ways to bond their teams and get to know their clients. “Drinks are just not such a good idea anymore,” she says. “And sports events aren’t always that inclusive.” An afternoon spent crafting together is a good alternative and CraftJam offers a complete package. “We have this turnkey solution where we provide everything. You don’t have to worry about anything. You want to have a family day with 150 people? No problem. You need a craft project for a thousand people? No problem. We can do it.”

Rather than competing with other platforms for online attention like she used to, now she’s serving them. “Google and Facebook, all these companies, they’re all our clients now,” she says with a chuckle. CraftJam has done corporate events for McKinsey, JP Morgan Chase, NBC, Bryant Park, Martha Stewart, Macy’s, and LinkedIn, among others. Kankaro tells me that Facebook engineers loved glass etching “because its technical, you know?” That project is a popular one. Abousteit had to reschedule our first interview because she was expecting a delivery of 1,000 wine glasses at their Brooklyn warehouse.

Other popular projects include leather wallet making, painting pots for succulents, making snow globes, pompoms, and confetti poppers, painting wooden ornaments, embroidery, and hand lettering.

CraftJam recently opened a storefront on Sullivan Street in SoHo. “We don’t sell things,” Kankaro clarifies. “We sell experiences.” The space has one long table that seats 18-20 people. “It’s a very simple setup.”

When I pointed out that the CraftJam model is harder to scale than a website like Kollabora or BurdaStyle, Abousteit seems unphased. “The question is do you always have to do that?” she asks. “Right now people spend between $45-180 per workshop. That’s not easy to make online per person, or even per thousands of people, unless you’re Amazon. And we’re empowering so many more people through this.”

Find CraftJam at cratjam.co and on Instagram.

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