To Cure the COVID Blues, Get CraftyCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | After pausing IRL events for the foreseeable future, a NYC-based crafting community found a new sense of purpose online. Published: August 31, 2021
Programming note: This article is part of a weekly column on small businesses in New York during COVID-19. To get #SmallBizSpotlight articles straight to your inbox, sign up here. You'll receive one email every Tuesday. Thanks for reading!
When was the last time you made something with your own hands, just for fun? Personally, I can’t remember. I impulse-purchased a coloring book sometime last year … and I haven’t opened it since the rainy afternoon I bought it.
It’s hard to prioritize play in our hustle-centric culture, where the value of any given activity is overwhelmingly determined by its market relevance (even Headspace — a meditation app — touts improved productivity as a selling point 🤦♀️). But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. This week, I spoke with someone who’s on a mission to make crafting mainstream: Nora Abousteit, the founder and CEO of CraftJam, a crafting platform offering workshops of all kinds for people of all experience levels since 2016. After pivoting to live online workshops at the outset of COVID, Abousteit dug deep to unearth crafting’s perennial value, whether or not a pandemic is turning the world upside down. Keep reading to learn how CraftJam has not just survived, but thrived, over the past 17 months, and what it takes to make a Zoom class truly social.
P.S. I want to send a special shout-out to Stephen Milioti, my wonderful editor and friend, for helping shape the voice and tone of this column. This is the last #SmallBizSpotlight he will work on, and I am so deeply grateful for his mentorship since my early days at Quiddity. Thank you, Stephen, for everything. XX
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired you to launch CraftJam?
I've been working on bringing people together and teaching them how to craft for decades. When I was young, my birthday parties always had a craft project, and I grew up in a very craft[-centric] household, so it was always my M.O. Fast forward [to adulthood], I was working for a publishing house and they had a fashion magazine with sewing patterns — it was the same magazine that I used when I learned how to sew — and they wanted to bring that online. So that's when I started the first of my three companies around crafting, and CraftJam is the third. It was a natural progression. I started BurdaStyle, which became the largest sewing community in the world with a million and a half members. And then I shifted to Kollabora, and that was online, [where] people shared what they made and how they made all kinds of crafts. While I was running Kollabora, I started these meetups in person, and people really liked them. I was working out of a coworking space in Flatiron, and one day I was like, Let's make this a structured workshop and sell tickets. It exploded: sometimes we would have four, five workshops a night. We outgrew the coworking space and [moved into] our own space [in Soho]. That went really, really well. Besides doing events from that space, we also hosted all over the city for clients like Bryant Park and different corporations. We were in offices, on rooftops, and parks. In February 2020, we had our best month ever.
When did COVID start impacting the business?
In the beginning of March, everybody kept cancelling. I was like, I don’t think we can do this … The studio is so tight, it’s too dangerous. We canceled our events and everybody started to stay at home or leave the city. My husband and I went for almost four months to my in-laws’ in New Mexico. Everyone on the team was either at parents’, in-laws’, or in their apartments. And right away, when we closed the studio, I said, “We have to do this online.” So, we kind of figured things out with Zoom and Eventbrite ... We packed [the crafting kits] in our bedrooms. I was doing all the calligraphy kits from the old bedroom of my sister-in-law.
Had you done virtual workshops at your previous companies?
We never did live stream. The other websites were asynchronous.
What’s the biggest challenge to hosting virtual workshops?
Creating a social atmosphere. In person, you have all this serendipity: you sit next to somebody and just strike up a conversation. Online, you've got to guide people more. What we noticed right away online is people were struggling. We were asking ourselves, How can we be sensitive to the mental health impact [of COVID]? People were sick, relatives were sick. People died, relatives died. One of our employees had two close relatives pass away. It was really intense. And so we had a lot of internal discussions and re-trainings for our JamMasters [the crafting teachers] ...
What changes came about from those discussions?
One of the biggest shifts was realizing and enabling social crafting. You have a lot of ways to craft online where you can watch a video on YouTube, but we said our core is social crafting: it's about doing this collectively. The second realization was [emphasizing] the research on how crafting is good for you. It’s not just about making something pretty: it can actually help people by creating new neural pathways. Many people know that, but we began to double down on [the fact that] there's something happening with your brain. At the same time, we started working with a scientist, Dr. Danielle Ramo, whose expertise is in behavior change, happiness, and tech. What we learned from her is that there are three foundational pillars for happiness: purpose, connection, and control. And crafting lends itself perfectly to those. We ask people about their final products and what kinds of emotions they have around them, making it much more intentional, which helps with the [sense of] purpose. Connection gets back to social crafting: we’re making sure that people are engaged, that they get to talk to each other and share what they made. And then having a sense of control in your life is protective against depression and anxiety, especially in times of stress or change. We curate the workshops so you can be in control of your outcome. It's not copy and pasted; it's unique and personal. And when you have an actual physical result at the end of the class, you feel that you've been in control. If we can help people find a ritual of crafting, we can really have an impact on people's lives.
How do you facilitate a sense of communion around crafting when people are coming in from different locations (and behind screens)?
We keep our groups small, because it's important to have an intimate experience. The other thing is our teachers: we work with some really empathetic teachers. They're asking questions, they're friendly, they're very patient, they’re encouraging others to show their work. They stay on if people still want to talk [after the workshop]. We also require [participants] to keep the video on. We understand that some people don't want to show their face, but we realized early on that for some people, it's creepy if others don't show their face. We just want people to feel safe and everyone should have the same etiquette.
Tell me about your team. Did you have to lay anyone off?
We were super lucky that we didn't have to lay anyone off. We had a really good holiday season in 2019 and then a great February . We had one person who had to go home because she couldn't get her visa extended. We also got a PPP loan that helped us a lot. And then in January we were able to raise a bit of funding. So we now have investors to hopefully grow and build more tech behind [the brand].
Are you offering any in-person classes at this point?
It's back and forth … We have been offering in-person workshops, but they’re mostly private because it's so hard to plan. We have this conversation every week, sometimes daily: How should we do this? Can we do it? Do people feel comfortable? A few weeks back, we were like, Okay, we can start doing more IRL. And then you get more and more news about Delta, and I don't know. What we're saying right now is that we can do outdoor events when people are masked and vaccinated … But the minute you write that, it’s probably going to have changed already. We have people emailing us constantly, asking, “When will you start offering the regular IRL's again?” I don't know.
I imagine it must feel treacherous to say anything definitive when so much is up in the air.
Absolutely. In the end, the safety of our employees is the most important. I can't invest in the space right now because I don't have that security. It's complex.
So you had to let go of the space in Soho for now?
Yeah, for a long time. It was really sad. But what can you do?
One silver lining of the pandemic, at least for those lucky enough to stay employed, was that we got more time to explore passion projects and take up new hobbies. Did you benefit from that shift?
Absolutely. I've been working on this for 15 years — my first office was at Etsy when Etsy was maybe six, seven people — and I’ve seen it growing every year. There’s a general shift from conspicuous consumption to conspicuous production. Now, the cool thing, the only thing you can have that's unique, is something you make. What many people are realizing is that buying more things doesn’t make you happy. There has been this awakening, and we’re seeing it everywhere from fashion to food. Once people understand more about where things come from and how they're produced, they tend to want to make those things themselves. I think crafting is next. The US craft industry is huge: it's between 30 and 44 billion, depending on which reports you read. It's becoming mainstream right now.
How is business going? I'm assuming well, based on what you just said …
Yeah, it’s going very well. This year compared to last year, we're going to grow from 200 to 300 percent, I think. We're very excited for the holidays. We're already prepping and buying supplies.
We want to make the product that we're offering — not just the experience in the workshops, but also on our website — more social. And then my major goal is figuring out how to guide people to a regular creative practice; instead of coming for a couple workshops, how can we help you do something more regular? I think that means building more content [via] what we call “Jammer Journeys.” The crafter is a jammer and the journey is learning more skills [through] the different workshops and crafts we offer. I hope more people will come on this creative journey with us.
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Until next time,