We were recently asked some thought provoking questions from Skyler Rossi from Times of Entrepreneurship and thought we would share some of our answers. She pulled together the REcreate designs story together along with handMADE Montana in a recent article: 2020 Survivor Story: Recreate Montana Pivoted To Online, And Grabbed Government Grants To Keep Paying Artists
Tell me about your company. What's your elevator pitch? HandMADE Montana is an organization for artisans and makers. We organize events (MADE fairs & workshops), provide resources to artists, and encourage growth and support in our community efforts. The MADE fair is Montana's largest art & handcrafted market and features a curated collection of over 200 skilled artisans and a handful of non-profits.
I'd like to know a little bit about you/ the co-founders of your company. Tell me about yourself and what inspired you to start your company.
I have been an entrepreneur at heart for as long as I can remember—always trying to come up with a business, product, or some odd way to make money. As a kid, I remember walking the country roads and picking "flowers" (actually weeds) and going door to door and selling my newly made bouquets for candy money. There is something innate inside of me that drives me to create and help others. After moving to Missoula, Montana, in 2007 from Wisconsin, I noticed there wasn't any alternative art & craft shows like the ones I participated in Madison or Milwaukee. I vended at the local Saturday market and became part of a vibrant and supportive artist community. When the holidays rolled around, it just made sense to plan a holiday show and see what would happen. In that December of 2007, the MADE fairs were born. They quickly grew in size from a dozen creatives to well over 200 artists. In 2014 I saw a vision for something bigger than just a handful of shows a year and founded handMADE Montana. It has evolved into a brick and mortar along with an online shop, a website with artist profiles, and a resource center for professional development and workshops. I love to help others and inspire them to achieve their goals. A mainly one-woman show, I have a support network of some super sidekicks that help along the way. What we do goes way beyond providing a space to vend their art. We develop and create opportunities to launch other artists to the next level. Darn proud.
What did you accomplish through your company in 2020?
The beginning of 2020 started on a high note from finishing a very successful roster of 2019 events for our artists and our first year at the new retail store. Despite the necessary and difficult decisions we had to make to keep our community safe, we still had a great year of development and growth. With this newfound time that would have otherwise been allotted to planning and organizing our large-scale events, we drove our energy into amping up our web presence. A benefit of being a MADE fair artist is exposure on our website, which includes their own artist profile with reels of product images, business/artist statement, and links to external websites and social media. This year we had over 400 artists listed on the site and beefed up their profiles to include local retailers that carry their products across Montana. It was clear early on that we would need to go virtual for our summer event and planned a strategy to highlight multiple artists every day and tell their story to our audience on Facebook & Instagram. Through relief funding from the CARES act, we were able to invest in additional photography equipment to produce professional product images of artists' work available in the retail store and list them for purchase on our website.
We are really proud of the fan and customer base we have grown from our events over the years and saw a need to help guide them to stay in touch with the artists they have grown to love. We embedded a map tool on our site with over 30 Montana retailers, galleries, gift shops, and DIY centers.
We do our best to direct as much attention and as many avenues for sales to our artists as possible. We put out a call to have businesses listed for free and will continue to build on this service in the future. Our retail store did well within the limitations of Covid, and our online sales are beginning to ramp up as well. Looking back, it was a crazy year, but we jumped forward on several of our longer-term goals and will continue to adapt as necessary.
How did COVID-19 affect your company?
We typically organize four very large modern handcrafted markets in three cities across Montana. Our MADE fairs can see visitors of over 8000 people. Early on, we realized the pandemic was going to change things. At first, we shifted dates from June to August for our summer show. As we all began to learn more about Covid-19 and the alarming rate of community spread, it really hit that we would have to cancel our whole year of events. We knew our artists' and community's health was our utmost concern, but this decision devastated us. Our events and retail store generate over 1 million dollars for our artists, and suddenly, all that possible income for artists came to a halt. We needed to rethink how we would do things and how we could help support artists during this transition. We hosted a virtual event for our summer show, and though we put a considerable amount of time into producing it, it was difficult to measure if it was a success. We are playing a long game, and many artists don't have the financial resources or savings to survive this seemingly unending pandemic. We share resources for financial assistance as we find them and do our best to continue to promote the MADE fair artists and community. Our retail store was our main revenue stream, along with assistance from the MT Covid Relief Fund, and EIDL SBA loan, and PPP loan. We never want financial hurdles to hold us back from trying new things. It is hard to jump into new things without a financial safety net, and we like to jump.
How do you measure success in your company? Did this definition change during 2020?
Like many businesses, I typically measure success by the dollars in the bank. This year, this shifted. We all became part of a global struggle, leveling the playing field. How would we overcome these obstacles? How would we pay all the bills, mortgage and continue to grow? At some point, we decided to do what needed to be done. The cancellation of our summer event was a pivot point for us. It coincided with the awful murder of one of our artists by a soon-to-be ex-husband. When canceling the show, we asked artists if they wanted a full refund or the choice to donate to a go-fund-me account for the family or to handMADE MT. The majority of our artists identify as women, and we prioritized making domestic abuse resources available to support and protect our artists. During a time of economic uncertainty, it would be even more difficult to leave an unsafe situation. We raised money and wrote the surviving family members a check to help one of our own who was taken too soon. Our success was no longer just in dollars but rather in connections and the ability to support and help on a more personal level the artists we now know as family.
What challenges did your business face last year?
One of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to best support the artists that trusted us to create opportunities for them. Many artists heavily relied on shows like ours to connect with customers. About 25% of the artists are makers full time and were already on track for web sales, social media promotions, and had multiple ways to find the customers they needed. We were concerned with the other 75%, the ones that had to find "real jobs" when the shit really hit the fan.
Our brick-and-mortar is still relatively recent. We were open eight months before the pandemic hit. The instability of the first few months of the pandemic was scary. We kept our doors open with health and safety measures in place and took out loans as a safety net. We didn't need to reinvent ourselves, but we needed to take a look at where to best put our energy. We wanted to continue to grow and be a support network to artists. The uncertainty of this coming year is still worrisome. We are hopeful that we can host in-person events by the end of summer.
How did you overcome those challenges?
We haven't fully overcome the challenges but have done our best under the circumstances. Our retail store did great during the summer and holiday season and made up for some of the revenue loss from canceling shows. We have continued to reimagine and reshape what connection looks like when we can't meet in person -- how we can continue to share the stories of artists and the things that they make, how we can still enact the personal in our everyday.
Tell me about a particularly difficult part of 2020 and how you overcame it.
A global pandemic was plenty for any business to navigate, but we had a literal burst pipe to boot. Over 6 feet of water flooded into our basement. Our shop, already facing reduced traffic, was closed for almost a week to assess and repair damages. Luckily, our insurance cleared damages and recouped revenue losses from the store closure. We keep our head in a crisis and strive to carry on.
Tell me about a bright spot of 2020.
I have been most encouraged by how communities have shown up for one another in face of the pandemic. Having lived in Polson, MT, for now, 19 months -- it was a blessing in disguise to have newfound time to connect with other small business owners in the community and commit to imagining what downtown Polson could look like post-pandemic. What services could we offer? How could we attract more summer tourism and make Polson a destination to visit?
What resources did you use throughout the year?
We tapped into our local Small Business Center, the Montana Department of Commerce, and the SBA to find out about grant and loan options available for both our artists and us.
What else would you like to share?
In Montana, we are lucky. The beauty of the natural world surrounds us, and we have room to roam. I see handMADE Montana as a guide for those needing help sorting out how to shift their passions and creative endeavors. We connect those that appreciate the world around them with those creating within it.