NEWARK, NJ — In the days before everyone’s established way of life came to a crashing halt, Newark resident Monifa Kincaid was just getting into her groove as a working artist, “pumping it up” to hit upcoming pop-up events and make more connections.
But as the story goes, the dream-crusher COVID-19 came, and Kincaid, a former choreographer and dance teacher who picked up visual arts in 2018 after an injury put her in retirement, saw her plans dashed in one fell brushstroke.
“I like getting out there and meeting people. It’s hard out there in the art world, especially if you’re just starting. It’s like, all right, what can you possibly do to get the word out there about you?” she said. “I’m not famous, I’m female, I’m black, that’s a whole lot of at the bottom for you.”
Enter Makerhoods, a Newark-based social enterprise that launched a localized Etsy-like product in April serving entrepreneurs, or “Makers,” in the Greater Newark area. Kristen Lopez, vice president of Maker Growth, said that 70% of the platform’s 26 permanent vendors, who offer handmade goods like clothing, jewelry, bath products and prints, are based in Newark.
Eighty percent of the small businesses on MakerhoodsMarket.com are women-owned and almost all are owned by people of color. But the e-commerce platform is more than just a place to buy and sell goods — Makerhoods offers a series of programs and support services to help their vendors succeed.
The digital experience of their vendors is mixed, so for those who need the extra boost, being a Maker comes with perks like technical assistance, marketing analysis and support and online bootcamps focused on sales. Vendors recently finished a 10-week program that guided them on generating their first $100,000 in revenue, complete with guest speakers and a presentation assignment on holiday sales.
Makerhoods even provides subsidized product photography for Makers from RyArMo Photography Studio on Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard, where the start-up’s offices are also located. Oh, and it’s all at no cost to the vendors outside a 3% sales commission. By comparison, Amazon charges $0.99 per sale plus an average 13% in variable closing and referral fees, and Etsy takes 5% from every sale.
The company is also overseeing the redesign of the Krueger-Scott Mansion, one of Newark’s most highly anticipated redevelopment projects, into a space where local artisans can live and work. Lopez, who developed and executed the marketplace with the help of Google and Shopify, said the six-person Makerhoods team previously wanted to launch a local online marketplace, but the pandemic brought a new sense of urgency to the project.
“When COVID hit, it was like, all right, let’s put aside our big plans for really investing in some sophisticated, fancy technology and get something up on the board,” she said.
With socioeconomic disparities put under a magnifying glass in the COVID-19 era, Lopez added that many vendors in Newark rely on in-person and craft markets to sustain a livelihood. Transitioning successfully to all-digital sales without guidance is simply not a realistic prospect for a lot of small businesses with limited access to capital.
“Even if their product is fantastic, maybe their web presence doesn’t reflect that, so they never make sales online. All these things are exasperated in a world where we can’t do commerce together,” Lopez said. “It was really kind of this moment of clarity, of ‘We’ve just got to do this.’”
Jessica Debrah, another Maker and owner of the natural beauty and social enterprise Feh, had the misfortune of officially registering her business just a few weeks before the pandemic hit. An entire spring and summer launch campaign of pop-ups and festivals dissolved before her eyes.
Without the initial profits to seed a website and further online development she imagined, the Makerhoods Market is a stand-in for a domain of her own.
“I had all these great hopes and dreams. I had so many goals for the connections I was going to be making with other businesses, and it has really been a challenge,” she said. “Thankfully, because of Makerhoods and the marketplace, I’m able to sell. The way that people find out about me is through my Instagram or word of mouth, so with Makerhoods, I have an official unofficial website I can send people to buy my products.”
The success and interest in the bare-bones version of the marketplace encouraged Makerhoods to make it a permanent program that includes a virtual community space for vendors to swap resources, ideas and sometimes, just camaraderie.
Kincaid describes the internal community platform as a Facebook just for the Makers, who can also engage with pop-up and other business opportunities that Makerhoods posts. For her business and personal sense of connectedness in a time when people are forced to stay at a distance, she said Makerhoods Market is exactly the color her pallet called for.
“I had paid fees that I couldn’t get back for pop-up, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh god, I do really well in front of people. So, how is this going to work?’ I revamped my website and I found Makerhoods,” she said. “This is literally a blessing, especially just recently starting this visual art life. I’m forever thankful to them, and as the actual space opens up, I know there will be even more opportunities.”
The exposure Kincaid has received from being a Maker has skyrocketed her sales. Before the pandemic, she was used to selling one print per week — now she’s up to four a week and three original pieces a month since May.
In communities like Newark, where a sharp digital divide now threatens countless businesses, initiatives like the Makerhoods Market has the potential to bridge the gap and save livelihoods, according to Dr. Patrali Chaterjee, professor and Department of Marketing chair at Montclair State University.
"This is a sustainable model that supports local businesses and communities that are hardest hit by the COVID crisis. And not just the COVID crisis, but geographies that traditionally have been overlooked and have endemic issues in terms of income opportunities, schooling," she said. "This is a great solution for what I would call a seed platform."
Chaterjee said that the Makerhoods make and investment in its vendors, who can then use the infrastructure to grow their digital presence. She sees it as being easily replicable and highly beneficial to both consumers and vendors, who are frequently punished by the way e-commerce platforms subsidize one side of the market.
"I see Makerhoods Market as a great concept," she added. "By creating the Makerhoods brand name, these individual salespeople can rely on that umbrella that's known to consumers as sustainable, local and artisan."
Lopez said Makerhoods is seeking applicants who are within the Greater Newark geographic area who are ambitious, coachable and sales driven. Local artisans who have an already established product that consumers can wear, eat, drink, use, gift, or decorate with can apply to join the platform at makerhoods.com/makerhoods-market.
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