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Kickstarter’s New Craftworld: Niche Courtship, Data Calls, and a Bunch of Handmade Pens

The king of crowdfunding makes a new push into Etsy’s world.

For half a decade, idiosyncrasy and data-driven commerce have coexisted on Kickstarter thanks to the reverse mullet system: creators’ RoboCop monuments & retro instant cameras in the front, dynamic spreadsheets tracking “dollars collected towards goal” in the back. Now, Kickstarter–whose launch in April 2009 heralded the age of “crowdfunding” in both common language & common practice–has a brand-new Crafts category to showcase its crochet-slinging, wood-carving, terra cotta-crazed agents of whimsy.

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First, let’s address the artisanally macraméd elephant in the room: Etsy. To the casual observer–i.e., the _Internet–Kickstarter’s Crafts-pansion can be seen as an invasion of the Brooklyn kingpin’s sovereign territory. Kickstarter spokesperson Julie Wood says it’s anything but. “We’re huge fans of Esty, and we’ve sort of both grown up in the NY ‘tech scene.’” (Etsy was founded in Brooklyn in 2005, and declined multiple requests to comment for this story.) “We get invites from each other, and collaborate from time to time.” She pointed out that they serve different users: Kickstarter, creators seeking concept-validation and funds; Etsy, cottage-industry shops with clear offerings.

Semantically, it checks out. But when Wood referred me to Etsy’s curated Kickstarter page as evidence of the warm relationship, I grew skeptical. It exists, but the last posted project closed its (successful) funding in February 2014, suggesting a recent dormancy. TROUBLE IN LOCALLY SOURCED, ECO-FRIENDLY TOYLAND, MY DUDES? Maybe not, but it’s fair to at least acknowledge that Kickstarter has edged closer to the Etsy-phant’s sandbox.

Image: Flickr user Patti Haskins

But enough about New York City platform politics! Let’s turn our attention now, readers, to the curious origins of this section: Crafts creators “[aren’t] usually interested in big numbers,” explains a company blog post announcing the launch (a two-fer unveiling; Journalism became a category simultaneously). Crafts projects themselves, for sustainable alpaca yarn, wooden calligraphy sets, and hand-poured candles, are “rarely blockbuster[s].” “But that’s exactly why these projects are some of our favorites,” the post magnanimously crows.

This favoritism would seem to fly in the face of Kickstarter’s own metrics, though. There are around 1,300 funded, failed, and current efforts in the newly minted Crafts vertical (compare to around 36,000 in Kickstarter’s most highly trafficked category, Films & Videos), so it’s hardly a firehose waiting to be unleashed. Its success rate sits just below the site-wide average, and a whopping 30 points behind Dance, Kickstarter’s improbable success-rate leader. (More on that later.) Dollars collected? Crafts sits dead last with a paltry $2.65 million while Games luxuriates with a $222.4 million GCP (“gross category product,” a term I just made up.)

So why start Crafts? And why now? “Before, Crafts had been a subcategory within art,” said Wood. “We felt that Crafts were distinct from Art, and there’s a huge community around crafting that’s its own separate thing.” After wheeling out 94 additional subcategories in April 2014, the platform introduced official homes for Crafts & Journalism in early June. Mostly, people seemed cool with it.

Image: Flickr user Carissa Rogers

A few, however, grumbled. “Still no education category!?” exclaimed commenter Adrian Sieber on another blog post. His (her? #NotAllCommenters’?) point is merited–there are plenty of factions that deserve their own official home, and may even have the big numbers to prove it.

Had the nascent Crafts group, prior to its consolidation, shown some hidden promise only visible to the Kickstarter cognoscenti? Some insight that explained why not an Education category, so that Mr./Ms. Sieber could be at peace, knowing there was a method to the categorical madness?!

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“It’s hard to tell,” Wood conceded unsatisfactorily, pointing out that the data was inherently incomplete. See, Kickstarter tracks everything by category, and before the arrival of capital-C Crafts, there was no concise data point with which to track the popularity index of geeky soy candles & mirrors etched with Marine insignias. Chaos reigned.

Not so with Dance, Kickstarter’s little category that could. It’s a bellwether for Crafts: a small vertical (third fewest projects launched) with surmountable fiscal goals (the only category with zero successful projects above $100,000) that nevertheless clocks the platform’s best started-to-funded ratio (a peerless 70%) thanks to its tightly knit community. If Crafts can draft off that model, it’s got a shot at becoming a Kickstarter mainstay. After all, if there’s one Kickstarter stat that encourages user growth & idiosyncrasy above all others, it’s not “dollars towards goal.” It’s “success rate,” and all the tantalizing promises that come with it.

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