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Folksy – Sculpt, cast, solder, glue, mould, sketch, buy, sell, go!

2010 April 7

FolksyFolksy is an online marketplace for Makers and Crafters to buy and sell their wares, its mission “to support craft and design talent through showcasing work and also providing a cost effective platform to sell ‘stuff'”. Based in the UK, Folksy is the brainchild of James Boardwell, who works in partnership with Director and Software Engineer, Rob Lee (whose wife Deb Bassett we featured on GMT last year), and the quietly magnificent marketing skills of Russell Davies. James was kind enough to tell me where Folksy came from and where it’s heading:

Who are you and what do you do?

I’m James Boardwell and I’m someone who is interested in how people behave and why they interact and that has driven my interest in social media and social business. RattleThis interest started at the BBC where I was a researcher / journalist in current affairs before being seconded into producing interactive content and websites. Following people like Tom Coates and Matt Locke, I became hugely interested in how you really ‘do’ a joined up semantic web experience. Nowadays I run Rattle Research with Rob Lee and we do research and social applications for the web.

What is Folksy, who is involved in it and how did it come about?

Folksy is a service for designers and crafters to share their knowledge and sell their work and for brands and people to find interesting items and talented designers. I kicked it off in 2006 having had the idea to do it whilst researching programmes for the BBC way back in 2000. I saw how the internet was enabling crafters and designers who had a ‘punk’ attitude to come together and support each other in a way they never could have before the internet, except in ‘artistic’ silos and neighbourhoods in major cities. To make it happen I scratched around and found a great software engineer in Rob, who had a huge interest in making social apps and in ‘craft’, albeit crafts around electronics and arduino’s rather than fabrics and natural materials. We had a beer, sketched out the service and I then sold my house and pumped some money into the venture and that’s that… well, it was another four months before we had a working prototype in June 2007 and then we mothballed the whole thing while we got Rattle going so we could generate a bit of elbow room to launch the service properly. That was meant to be 3 months and it ended up being 12months. We launched in July this year as a beta.

What issues have you faced since launch? Have you had to re-think the business at all?

The service was predicated on the cream rising to the top, on an ‘open’ platform where we create different ways to slice the data / the products and allow the long tail of stuff to find its long tail buyer. This model has been tested. We’ve had some great quality work but we’ve also had some items that have been of questionable quality. We did consider a panel / approval system. We looked at sites like Etsy and Not on the High Street and compared models and on balance we prefer to stick to our ethos and try and build around an open service.
We’ve also realised that we need to play to our strengths. We’re not event organisers as a few attempts at making that work for Folksy have proved. There’s a skill in doing events well. We’re good at making and running a trading platform and managing a community on the web so we’re sticking to that.

James BoardwellWhere is Folksy heading?

We want to re-claim craft and design from both the elite art establishment and from the church tea-room. There are very skilled ‘makers’ out there and through Folksy we’re giving them a means to share ideas, make money and do something they love. Whilst independent design and crafting is quite big at the moment and there are a raft of services that designers and crafters can choose from, we believe we have the ability to be successful. Folksy is simply architected, it’s a good user experience, we’ve found a solution to managing poorer quality work and we are trialling working with High Street brands to run competitions to drive wider, mainstream interest. Later in the year we’ll be launching with Universities to enable students and departments to create spaces for their work which they can manage and from which they can derive an income; it’s a great way to trial ideas in the market at very little cost.

As the world economy starts to wobble we’re also keen to promote the idea of a ‘creative surplus’ akin to Clay Shirky‘s notion of a cognitive surplus. We believe that with a little bit of effort most people could create things themselves. Our Make section which launches this month (which is similar to the Instructables) aims to show people how to make things so they don’t have to buy. We’re not talking the Large Hadron Collider here, more screen printing a new t-shirt or producing a lampshade.

Can you tell us about the Maker scene in the UK and Europe?

There is less of a ‘scene’ in the UK and Europe than say, the US. There’s a less identifiable core and so it seems smaller and it’s fair to say that the UK crafters were not as quick to see the possibilities of the web, both to share, talk and sell as was the case in the US.  But that’s changing and it’s no longer seen as a male dominated, dorky thing to do. The technology has become almost invisible through simple blog CMS.  There is a very talented Maker population with over 4000 design graduates coming out of UK Universities every year and thousands of artists studios. One of the things I really want to do is to encourage some of these top artists to create more mainstream pieces, to have more ‘fun’ with their work and to marry up with say, electronics makers and do collaborative works. To this end we hope to be running a Craftcamp early next year.

The main issue is still one of elitism. An ‘artist’ won’t mix with a ‘hobbyist’. We try to encourage more of a mix but I think the US are more open and less elitist in this respect.

How does Folksy compare with established Craft online marketplaces like Etsy?

We have similarities in that we’re a business that supports independent ‘makers’ and we’re open but we also differ in that we’re not necessarily as ‘social’ because we believe there are already places for the making community to talk and discuss things on the web. We’re also more focused on being an intermediary between commercial interests and independent makers, so we’re committed to partnering with brands to run ‘live briefs’. These briefs are key for Folksy to educate the wider public about ‘cool’ craft and design as well as reaching a more mainstream audience. The current competition with howies is our first example of these briefs and you can see the shortlisted winners now in the Carnaby Street store. What else? We’re going to be doing specific work with the educational institutions to promote the work of undergraduates and graduates and run ‘shows’ of their work. We think there’s an awful lot of talent that goes to waste every year as students struggle to gain work in their field of interest. Folksy will be one venue for them to facilitate this and make it easier for them to create a career from their talent. And that’s it really. We’re similar but different.

Why is the Maker community and market important?

Firstly, they’re passionate about what they do. Secondly, there are lots of them and many of them are very talented. Thirdly, they offer a means to get off-the-grid, to find alternatives to the very conspicuous, label driven sort of consumption we have in the West. Folksy isn’t a political project but we like to think of it being a means for the small guy / girl to compete with the bigger brands.

Going forward I’d love to see us providing a Mechanical Turk for craft, a means to commission work simply to this distributed talent base. That would be neat – the efficient, auction economy imbued with social democratic virtues; a cottage industry for the 21st C.

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