Invasion of the ‘Homepreneurs’

Thanks to the pandemic-influenced crafting boom, an influx of home-bound enthusiasts is selling imprinted goods created with their new equipment.

Blue capital letter D onnie Salter used to joke that he was an “Etsy mom.”

It all started eight years ago when the Florida man with a background in graphic design was making stickers to send to members of an online Mustang club he’d founded. Those stickers snowballed into requests for hats, T-shirts and other logoed items. Before he knew it, Salter’s hobby had morphed into a side hustle, with Salter routinely staying up until 1 or 2 a.m. to fill orders, then heading out to his day job at an engineering firm just a few hours later. “PG Hat Co. was about to bust at the seams,” Salter recalls.

So, three years ago, Salter quit the full-time position to go all in on PG Hat Co. By 2019, the garage-based business, with a focus on custom leather patches, was already bringing in more than $100,000 in annual sales. When the coronavirus pandemic shut down the world last year, Salter and his wife, Mandy, weren’t sure what would happen with their young company, preparing themselves for a drastic drop in revenue. Instead, Salter says, PG Hat’s sales skyrocketed – jumping about 150%.

Why? Salter attributes a lot of the success to his decision to purchase two Glowforge laser cutting/engraving machines last year. “That really transformed everything for us,” he says, noting that the machines eliminated downtime, increasing productivity while freeing him up to focus on other areas of the business. “It’s basically like having another employee – that you don’t have to pay or give benefits to,” Salter adds.

Salter is part of a growing contingent of people who have been finding success and satisfaction as “homepreneurs,” investing in consumer-level decorating equipment and selling their creations and custom imprinting services online. The rise of the prosumer (a mashup of producer-consumer) was already apparent prior to the pandemic, but as with so many e-commerce-related phenomena, 2020 accelerated the trend.

“Last year definitely changed a lot of people’s lives,” says Mark Stephenson, director of marketing at ColDesi (asi/18325), a decorating equipment manufacturer geared toward small startups. “There’s a surprising number of them where things changed for the better [in business]. We’ve got more customers than ever, and most of our customers did great.” In fact, he adds, ColDesi had its best sales year ever in 2020.

Dan Shapiro

Dan Shapiro is the CEO of Glowforge, a 3-D laser printer that can engrave on and cut a variety of substrates.

Thanks to clients like Salter, Glowforge doubled in size last year – after having doubled in size in 2019 as well, according to CEO Dan Shapiro. “That’s a good trend that’s just been continuing,” he says.

Cricut, which makes an array of cutting machines and heat presses aimed at the home market, also had a stellar year. The company was already on a growth trajectory, going from $340 million in sales in 2018 to $486 million in 2019 – a 43% increase. But, the impact of the pandemic put that growth into overdrive. In 2020, Cricut sales jumped 97% to $959 million, according to investor site Benzinga. (Riding the DIY craze that propelled so many crafting companies in 2020, Cricut went public earlier this month, though its IPO didn’t go as well as planned, and it recently angered its customer base after imposing – then quickly rescinding – a monthly subscription fee for uploading designs.)

Etsy, the place where so many Cricut crafters peddle their wares, had what it described as a “transformative year” – with gross merchandise sales, excluding masks, in its marketplace at $3.3 billion, up 118% year over year. “2020 was an inflection point in history for e-commerce and for Etsy, with millions of buyers choosing us for their everyday needs as we lived up to our  mission to ‘Keep Commerce Human,’ ” said Etsy CEO Josh Silverman in an enthusiastic press release announcing the site’s full-year results.

Behind the Boom

Tandy Tirmai

Tandy Tiramai, a Los Angeles physician assistant, started a small side business last year creating and selling personalized dog bandannas using a Cricut cutter.

There are a lot of reasons for the boom in home-based decorating businesses, not the least of which was simply that many who were stuck in lockdown for long periods of time were bored and wanted a new hobby. “Lots of people were looking for a new creative outlet, since they weren’t able to travel as much and they didn’t want to watch Netflix all day,” says Tim Check, product manager at Epson America. Epson recently released a desktop dye sublimation printer, the SureColor F170, with a compact design and $400 price tag, both of which are appealing to the home market.

“Toward the end of the year was very rough for us in Los Angeles, waking up every day, putting PPE on and seeing patients. This company and my dog have kept me afloat mentally and emotionally. It’s something to keep my head and mind off of what was going on in the world.” Tandy Tiramai, West Coast Wag Co.

That need for a creative outlet is part of what prompted Tandy Tiramai, a physician assistant in California, to launch her side business, West Coast Wag Co., last year. Tiramai had adopted a toy Australian shepherd and bought a sewing machine so she could make accessories for him. Soon after, she started selling the pet bandannas she created, along with a line of dog-themed apparel (for humans). She purchased a Cricut so she could accommodate personalization requests on orders and customize the packaging. “It pretty much paid for itself,” she says of the printer.

Early in the pandemic, Tiramai had lots of free time to devote to building her side business, but even as cases rose in California and Tiramai’s work as an essential healthcare professional became more taxing, she kept going with her side hustle, and was more grateful than ever to have both her dog and her bandanna business. “Toward the end of the year was very rough for us in Los Angeles, waking up every day, putting PPE on and seeing patients,” she says. “This company and my dog have kept me afloat mentally and emotionally. It’s something to keep my head and mind off of what was going on in the world.”

Another factor behind the home-business boom was the record levels of unemployment last year. “There was this big surge in people either that were laid off or underemployed, and it inspired them to hit the side hustle hard,” Stephenson says. There were also some who remained fully employed, received a stimulus check and decided to invest the funds into their passion projects. A $1,200 check could more than pay for a Cricut or similar machine, or it could be a substantial down payment on a higher-end machine, like the DigitalHeat FX white toner transfer printer ColDesi sells, Stephenson adds.

Silhouette Sisters

Katie Smith (pictured) and her sister, Taylor, bought a Silhouette cutter last year to print the vinyl stickers that they sell in their Studio Sisters Etsy shop.

Job insecurity was one of Taylor Smith’s concerns when she launched Studio Sisters last year. The Florida woman was worried she might lose her teaching job due to coronavirus-related cutbacks. She turned to Etsy as a way to give herself a financial cushion. She and her sister, Katie, bought a desktop craft-cutting machine from Silhouette, so they could design, print and sell waterproof vinyl stickers online. Katie, an artist, had been using a third-party vendor to print her stickers, but the sisters decided bringing production in-house would be a good way to increase their profit margins.

Smith didn’t end up getting fired, but she did leave the teaching field four months after the Studio Sisters opened for business. “Suddenly, I was making way more on Etsy than I ever had as a teacher,” she says, adding that the shop was routinely bringing in $20,000 a month in Etsy sales.

Tech That Doesn’t Intimidate

Also driving the growth in home-based decorating businesses is the technology itself. Equipment companies are making technology that doesn’t require specialized knowledge to use, doesn’t take up tons of space and isn’t disruptive in terms of noise and mess. “The Glowforge technology makes it incredibly fast to do the setup; you can just drag and drop a picture from your phone while on the road,” Shapiro says. “We have people who design using a PowerPoint or Google Docs or just using a pen. It really requires no skill whatsoever. The time from the Glowforge first being delivered to holding their first print is 30 minutes.”

Desktop sublimation has also become less intimidating for the average person, says Epson’s Check. “It’s not as scary as it seemed in the past,” he adds. “You don’t need special RIP software or to know all sorts of print lingo to make things happen.”

And when questions do arise, there’s a wealth of resources online – much of it from other people in the business. Glowforge, for example, has a vibrant online support community “staffed by employees and super-users” where owners can go for advice on how to make their prints better, Shapiro says. “It’s been a really powerful tool,” he adds. Smith and her sisters started a podcast to help other crafters navigate their way toward profitability on Etsy. They also send out a free weekly newsletter and created a guide to SEO on Etsy to help others.

Stephenson has been co-hosting a Custom Apparel Startup podcast for years as part of ColDesi’s extensive training process. The podcast, which has 140 hours of content to help new decorating businesses grow, also has an associated Facebook group where users can interact with each other. “It’s a community of people that support them,” Stephenson says.

Desiree Colonna, CEO of Inkwell Designers (asi/553001) in Woodstock, GA, was able to leverage the growing community of Glowforge users to help her own small business thrive during the pandemic. Colonna started buying wholesale engraving blanks and reselling them, along with information on the proper machine settings to use, to other engravers. “People still tell me to this day, ‘You saved my business during the pandemic,’ because of the blanks I was able to provide them,” Colonna says. “I made so much money selling blanks to the Glowforge groups that I was able to upgrade my own laser and get a UV printer.”

Who’s the Competition?

The influx of these home-based, mom-and-pop shops can be frustrating for established distributors and decorators, but Stephenson and others don’t believe promo companies need to consider them as competition. “I would challenge each person that’s complaining about the Cricut crowd to describe the job they lost to them,” Stephenson says. “It’s a blast to do one shirt with a Cricut; it’s simple to do five, but you get an order for 15, and that’s what you’re doing for the weekend. The first or second time someone with a Cricut gets an order for more than a few items – perhaps 10 orders of three pieces that need to be done in a week – they’re no longer competition.”

Smith and her sister know the limitations of trying to run a business with a machine that’s meant primarily for hobbyist use. “Every time we turn on the Silhouette we give it this little message of, ‘Please work today.’ We’ve had a few hiccups with it, but it’s far exceeded our expectations,” she says. “We’re expecting to either have to add another one or replace parts, just in order for it to keep up.”

“I would challenge each person that’s complaining about the Cricut crowd to describe the job they lost to them.” Mark Stephenson, ColDesi

Check believes the growth of Cricut and similar hobbyist machines is actually a good thing for the promo industry since it raises awareness about the potential and scope for imprinted goods. “I see it as opening the market more,” he adds, noting that small home-based businesses may end up partnering with bigger shops when their orders become too high volume or unmanageable at home. For example, Tiramai currently sends her T-shirt orders to a local screen printer, and Salter of PG Hat Co. will outsource shirt designs that require white ink, since his transfer printer can’t accommodate those. “It’s just more cost beneficial to us in a situation like that,” Salter says.

Indeed, Colonna says, “There’s enough room at the table for everybody.” However, she adds that other promo distributors shouldn’t ignore the power of these micro-decorators. “I’m seeing better service from some of these smaller companies,” Colonna says. “There are always complaints about the bigger companies not delivering and not taking care of customers. A lot of us [smaller companies] have stepped in and said, ‘Hey, trust us.’”