By Julia Jung
Exploring Start-Up Culture
In Silicon Valley, California, I grew up surrounded by startup culture—surrounded by people who encouraged innovative ways to create economic value. Although Silicon Valley is well known for their tech boom, this mindset was not limited to those in IT or traditional workplaces. The capitalistic urge to commodify everything is prominent in most industrial countries. We are told to be efficient and make the most of our talent, which is often used synonymously with making money. Numerous classmates in high school begin selling what they had initially began making as a hobby or way to express themselves such as customized shoes, jewelry, and handmade cards. Entrepreneurship is a path that many youthful individuals choose to take, not only as an alternative to the traditional academic path but often as an additional way to follow a passion that they feel they could not devote their entire career to.
As a rising senior in university, there is not a day that goes by without being asked “What do you want to do after you graduate?” Especially in what many scholars call “precarious times”–an era of low job security where a costly university degree no longer guarantees you a career— coupled with the millennial mindset of not settling for the status quo, my future paths are clouded in uncertainty. Ideally, I would be able to live pursuing my passions, but even if one succeeds in the unexpectedly arduous task of finding this pasion, anything involving the arts is discouraged due to its societal reputation for being unstable, unsustainable, and not profitable. Understanding the reality of the situation and gauging the feasibility of such a pursuit can be challenging.
So for this research project, I wanted to attempt to explore the viability of non-traditional career paths and lifestyles. I interviewed people who sold handmade artistic goods in order to gain insight about their motivations for starting these projects, their hopes for the future, and their perspective on how they fit into mainstream commodity culture. By learning more about their story, I was interested in learning how they perceived themselves as entrepreneurs, business people, and artists. How do those who participate in this lifestyle understand their current role and their future as members of today’s commodity culture?
Engaging Youthful Creative Entrepreneurs
I interviewed a total of five people: two university students who began by selling their projects to their friends and three full-time artists in the Netherlands who own pages on a commercial online platform Etsy.com for selling their goods. One of the university students, who I will call Ashley, sells hand-painted customized shoes that are personal and “tailored to each individual” on her own online platform. She has been drawing on shoes for over five years and described her project with a lot of passion. Depite having created a business model, as a student, she viewed her art as a side project. Still, she did express interest in continuing her work.
I consider it a little bit more of a hobby than a business because I am not actively marketing or advertising [my project] as much as I should for it to be a successful business. I really enjoy painting shoes, so it feels like a hobby to me. That being said, I would definitely like to continue expanding it as a business in the future.
The other university student, who I will call Sara, sells handmade jewelry on a website called Julbox. Julbox is a startup design company that aims to “give anyone with a desire the ability to create one of a kind jewelry affordably” (“Who We Are,” 2017). She began by posting pictures of the jewelry she made on Instagram just as a fun hobby and in August 2016, Julbox reached out to her about becoming a seller on their website. She expressed a long passion for fashion and gave detailed account of her highly collaborative work together with Julbox, who she said “helped me make my dream come true” by enabling her to make jewelry designing both her hobby and a business.
Clara, who I found through Etsy, is a University of Amsterdam alumni who has been selling handmade (mostly custom-made) plush toys for over five years. Last year, she quit her other job and began focusing solely on her craft. Our discussion centered around how whimsically her business began and her gratitude for all the support she received from her mother and husband. She expressed a lot of pride for her business and had a lot of professional knowledge about fabrics and materials despite her educational background being in literature. She laughed at the “nerdiness” of her knowledge but seemed to really enjoy her work– many of her sentences began with “I really like…”
Sebastian, who I also found through Etsy, studied architecture in Greece and is now selling handmade wooden bow ties. He began making them from scrap pieces of wood that was being thrown away in class. He arrived to the interview with hands covered in the new paint he had been testing. He described negative experiences working as an architect through the financial crisis and showed great enthusiasm for his current work. He gave very detailed answers with little prompting and spoke extensively about the value of handmade products, not only due to the creative aspect, but also due to its sustainability.
The final artist I found through Etsy, who I will call Jackie, makes stone sculptures, both custom-made as well as from her own inspirations. She began after finishing her studies at university and has been able to live off of the money she makes from her art for the past 25 plus years. She not only sells her artwork, but also runs workshops at her studio. When I arrived there for the interview, she began showing me all her equipment, which ranged from hammers to large electric saws. My lack of knowledge about sculptures did not hinder her enthusiasm but rather, helped spark more questions about her work. She used a lot of analogies to describe her love for her work.
My interviewees’ experiences selling their craft ranged from a few years to almost thirty years and their backgrounds ranged from university students to mothers with three children. Rather than limiting my interviewees to a certain age range, I chose to interview people who seemed to have a youthful and entrepreneurial attitude. Youth and entrepreneurship are both flexible identities— calling an energetic elderly woman youthful does not seem contradictory and people who are not necessarily running their own business but are innovative problem-solvers are often described as being “entrepreneurial”. Thus, these categories may be better understood not as being defined by specific criteria, but rather, by sentimental qualities or feelings. Although this sentiment may be difficult to rationalize and articulate they are nonetheless experienced and real. This is analogous to what Williams (1961, p. 64) would call a structure of feeling, which refers to values shared by a community that reflects their lived experiences and is often evident in artistic expression. This concept helps explain the definition of entrepreneurship that Bruce Bachenheimer, “the executive director of the Entrepreneurship Lab at Pace University,” gives: “entrepreneurship is a mindset – a way of thinking and acting… imagining new ways to solve problems and create value” rather than being limited to creating businesses (as cited in Fernandes, 2016). All the interviewees included in this project have a youthful and entrepreneurial mindset. They are high-spirited and hopeful individuals who are creating demand for something consumers did not even know they wanted or needed.
Empowerment in Precarious Times
In times of modern precarity and general “insecurity in life: material, existential, social” (Precarias a la Deriva 2006, as cited in Allison, 2012, p. 349), this youthful and entrepreneurial structure of feeling is often associated with a desire to “own” uncertainty. When uncertainty is normalized and all aspects of life seem irregular and unstable (Flanagan, 2008, p. 139), creating and selling your own creation can be a source of empowerment. It is reclaiming the power that is handed over to big businesses in capitalistic cultures: it reinforces “the idea that you can do for yourself the activities normally reserved for the realm of capitalist production” (Holtzman et al., 2007, p. 44).
The story of how Ashley began drawing on shoes illustrates how creative entrepreneurship can be a source of empowerment– a creative way of making something valuable:
In middle school, I wanted new shoes and my parents didn’t want to buy any for me because they didn’t think I needed new shoes yet, so I decided to get creative and make my old shoes look different. I started drawing on my shoes. I really liked drawing on my shoes, so in high school, I decided to turn each project into a full blown project, complete with research and design processes.
She turned the problem (not being able to get new shoes) into an opportunity to exercise her agency by literally making the solution. Drawing on her own shoes allowed Ashley to own the whole manufacturing process and gave her power to create something she felt was her own. She said that what she enjoyed most about the process was getting to be hands on with the creation of her product. Clara similarly expressed how part of what she enjoyed about the whole process was that she had control from the beginning to end:
Around Christmas I had someone helping me because it was too busy but I prefer doing it all by myself. I just don’t like letting others do it because I think I’m too much of a control freak and it’s very specific what I do so there’s not much someone else can do without being really good at it… I prefer to do it and it’s fine doing it on my own because I can control how much work I have and what I ask for… so it’s fine… right now… I know what goes out and what comes it.. So [numbers are still manageable].
Although she recognized the possibility of the business becoming too big for her to run it as a one woman show, she seemed to really enjoy doing all the aspects from marketing to designing to contacting the customers. Again, there was a sense of agency in my conversation with Clara. She enjoyed feeling like she was in control of all these processes that are generally hidden in mass production. She also expressed that part of the appeal of handmade products was that consumers got to know that there was no child labor behind the manufacturing process—just her. Having control over the entire process meant that there was more room for transparency.
These interviews illustrate how such projects give creators a sense of control over their merchandise and how appealing this transparency is to creators and consumers alike in precarious times. When uncertainty becomes the new norm, human relationships are not exempt from feeling unreliableness and riskiness, which augments feelings of anxiety and vulnerability rather than “uniting individuals” (Bauman, as cited in Lee, 2005, p. 66). In today’s competitive economic field, satisfying and stable human connection can feel difficult to form. Thus, being able to independently own the process may be a method of reducing anxiety and avoiding insecurity in precarious time.
Finding Fulfillment in Precarious Times
It is important to note that the products that my interviewees made were not only handmade but also often custom-made, adding another layer of intimacy. Holtzman and colleagues argue that “when a DIY commodity is produced, it is created for its use-value [or the worth it gives to the participant], rather than for its exchange value” (2007, p. 45). The validation that comes from creating these products is not necessarily economical but personal, which reflects the stated mission of a lot of my interviewees and the online platforms that they use, all of which asserted the philosophy that clothes, art, gifts—any item of purchase—should and could be personal.
For example, Etsy describes its platform as a space that allows people to “Buy, sell, and Live Handmade. Reimagine commerce in ways that build a more fulfilling and lasting world” (“Mission & Values,” 2017). This desire to make something personal seemed to be a common theme when asked what the benefits of handmade goods are over commercial goods. Interviewees generally believed that the one of a kind aspect to these goods gave the products more value and sentiment. Even if the product had a few paint flaws, Sebastian saw the “flaws” as a mark of human connection that distinguished it from mass produced goods.
We have the philosophy from media that you have to be like Angelina Jolie from 16 to 95 years old and that you don’t change. But who says the wrinkles and scratches we have on our body or products aren’t nice? For example, I hate new leather shoes—they’re so perfect that they’re fake. But if you wear it and you have scars, there are memories on the product. It has history. But then all the magazines and stuff try to convince us that it doesn’t matter but it matters. But in handmade products you see it. For example, on my bows you see the brush strokes. So you feel connected with another human being and you don’t even think about throwing it away. So if this is the idea behind it, I think people enjoy it.
By reintroducing the human element to products, Sebastian argued that it forced the consumer to remember the laborers behind the manufacturing process and thus, have a greater appreciation for the history behind whatever they owned. It was almost as if the object of consumption demanded respect, which not only gives the creator more credit but also promotes recycling through repair and reuse. Anna also had similar sentiments about the personal touch that handmade products harbor:
I like… that moment when they’re almost done and you’re giving them eyes and they become a personality… I really like that. I think that’s what I like most about making animals and stuff like that. And when someone asks me to make them e.g. a tucan, I’ll study it and I’ll really look at the animal– I really like that.
Interviewees seemed to find this reintroduction of the human element a very appealing part of creating handmade goods. Since creating these products were no longer just about money but more so about expression and connection, there seemed to be a heightened sense of fulfillment. However, even if this sense of human connection enabled a more fulfilling and sustainable transaction, it did not seem to change the fact that this lifestyle is not unlike the other paths available in precarious times: highly unstable. Clara expressed her anxiety about the future of her business, despite the fact that she has been making a steady 5-7 plush toys per week for about a year. She says that choosing to focus on her art was a gamble “because you have to make sure you get enough orders. I’m always worried that maybe someday there won’t be any customers anymore.” And given the volatility of the art market and popularity of handmade good, managing money well and planning for any circumstance can be a crucial skill for making it for a long time a a creative entrepreneur. Jackie also discussed the importance of financial planning:
One and a half year ago there was a recession and I had an exhibit. And we thought it’s an recession so no one will buy but we had to do something for ourselves– to keep ourselves busy. Somehow, we sold almost everything. The big sculptures sold very well. So you can’t expect it (you can’t predict the market). So I had to be careful not to spend all my money then.
Commodifying Creativity as an Alternative Career
Perhaps these “alternative” career paths are increasingly seen as more viable due to the fact that the more traditional options are also no longer seen as stable. In an era when every path is uncertain, there seems to be less relative risk for taking an artistic route, thus, people seem to be more open to be daring. The interviewees’ experiences show that the normalization of uncertainty does not have to paralyzing but in fact, can be turned into a opportunity to recognize our agency in the culture of commodification. The necessity of obtaining a permanent contract in a traditional workplace seems to be challenged with the viability of such lifestyles. Sebastian, Jackie, and Anna were all quick to note that they did not make a lot of money, however, they all made enough to live relatively comfortably.
I chose to put alternative in quotation marks because what is considered a traditional job is expanding. Being your own boss may have been once considered an alternative to the office work lifestyle. However, creating your own path through small businesses is becoming more popular and mainstream, which is reflected by the booming startup culture and emergence of crowdfunding that seems to enable anyone and everyone with a little creativity to actualize their ideas. In fact, 30.6% of the workforce in the United States in 2005 relied on independent contracting that defied the “typical career paradigm characterized by lifetime employment and a pension upon retirement” (Flanagan, 2008, p. 131). Cormaff and Cormaff (2005) note this general trend towards “autonomy.” They argue that in an era of advanced commodity culture where the “promises of infinite possibility” of globalism juxtaposes “impossibility occasioned by the widening disparities of wealth” in neoliberal capitalism that favors free markets, “many youth entrepreneurs… find their own ways and means” (p. 23).
The growing popularity of trading handmade products with the rise of websites such as Etsy and Julbox may be reflective of a desire to move away from mass production. Although the commodification and trade model may still be capitalistic, selling handmade goods reminds us that trade is not only economical but also cultural and social due to the reintroduction of the human element. Sebastian described how rather than following a trend, he designs his products in hopes that it will resonate with a client:
My product is not like to wear it and take a pose it’s like to find what is inside you and express it somehow. It’s totally different because it’s handmade you see the hands of someone that worked on it. Somehow to express the soul. If you buy a nice blouse from a brand, you see a lot of other people wearing it. You’re a number. But when you wear something handmade, there’s spirit in it. It’s the energy. It’s not only what you see but also how you feel. All the love and hands of the people who work on this product comes with this product I think.
This ability to help others express themselves is also what Jackie loved about her making custom made sculptures as a part of her work. She told me stories about how she sometimes gets orders for very personal and sentimental grave sculptures. When asked how it is possible to capture such intimate feelings, she replied [edited for clarity]:
A lot of attention and a lot of respect—I ask them ‘what do you want to tell, what is the meaning’. And I can imagine when I listen to people talk about it what meaning they want and it’s very nice to put that into a form. And to choose a stone to express it. I have never experienced that it is not a success.
Sara also expressed a desire to make something unique and personal. However, unlike Sebastian, she chose to follow the current trends in order to ensure demand.
Customers can’t request designs, but yes I do make sure there’s demand before I make them, I research on what shapes, styles, and color that is trendy right now. Then I put those elements into my jewelry.
Sometimes, the artists’ ideologies can clash with practicality. While selling their products on online platforms can be helpful in reaching a wider audience, it can also limit interactions with clients, which is why Ashley chose to develop her own website. Nonetheless, even if these online platforms do guide interactions, one could argue that handcrafted products over mass-produced goods, remind consumers to be more intentional about their purchases. Perhaps, in addition to being an “alternative” career path, selling handmade goods could be a point of departure for establishing a more sustainable economy.
Implications of Commodifying a Hobby
Although the development of such online platforms that promotes finding “their own ways and means” may seem like the perfect solution to the dilemma of making pursuing your passions viable, the expansion of commodification can make it increasingly challenging to separate the professional from the personal. Abraham (2008) argues that “by promoting the concept that anyone can ‘quit their day job’ and make ends meet with their hobby, Etsy is assisting in a process where leisure is transformed into paid labor” (11). Such platforms are changing our understanding of the workplace—the idea that what we do in our spare time can be monetized upon has become normalized. Labor has “shifted from the factory to society,” (Terranova, 2000, p. 36), making our personal lives every more complex.
Clara discusses how difficult it is to separate her work from her daily life:
I try to work 4 days a week but right now it’s mostly 5 days a week. But I do keep weekends off. If there’s a deadline I’ll work in the weekend but I’ll try not to. And it’s online and a lot of messages come from the US so they come in the middle of the night… I never close the business. So I’ll answer emails in the weekend but not behind sewing machine. And my husband keeps track– It’s the weekend stop working. Yeah it’s important otherwise I’d be burned out in a year. You need your downtime.
Although the challenges of striking a work-life balance may seem unappealing at first, when the work is something they love and genuinely enjoy doing, is there a problem? I argue not because despite this current intensive commitment, Clara seemed to be able to retain her main goal of having fun. Her intention was not to make a ton of money but to rather, continue doing what she loved.
I want to continue as long as it’s fun. I can see maybe it’ll change in a couple of years but I really have no idea. I would really like to become really good so I can do it for another 5-10 years… who knows? It needs to be fun and if I’m not enjoying it anymore there’s no reason to do it.
Perhaps due to this non-materialistic motivation, she seemed alright quitting the job at any time. Although the uncertainty may be high, it did not seem to make her anxious because her start had not been very intentional to begin with. Her business began, like many of the other interviewees, as a side hobby that her friends and family began requesting personal versions of.
Ashley also had a very similar attitude to her work. When I inquired about her hesitancy to expand her business in the future, she expressed, “Sometimes, I do get worried about whether or not expanding will make it less fun for me, but I think it’s worth a shot to try!” In addition to the non-materialistic foundation, perhaps the feeling that they control the whole process helps them not be too caught up in the uncertainty of the future of their craft. As the designer, marketer, and CEO, if Ashley found that she did not enjoy the expansion she could scale don at any moment (given that there were no financial motivations). The entrepreneurial mindset helped them not be dictated by their passions despite the relatively unintentional beginning.
This “go with the flow” attitude taken towards their work problematizes notion of a career and correspondingly, the notion of adulthood. If people can go their whole lives retaining this youthful entrepreneurial spirit, what defines adulthood? Arnett (2006) proposes that a new age called “emerging adulthood,” which is marked by identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between, and possibilities, has developed (p. 8). These qualities seem to describe the structure of feeling of the youthful entrepreneurs interviewed in this paper well. However, although Arnett does a good job of capturing the sentiments of many young people in industrialized countries, I think beyond the emergence of this new age, the notion of adulthood in itself has also been redefined. As Flanagan (2008) argues, the markers of “growing up” have shifted to reflect the growing job insecurity and increasing “uncertainties associated with the transition to adulthood” (p. 126-7).
Fiscal independence and responsibility are still important values but are no longer limited to traditional jobs—finding innovative ways to generate economic value is also highly prized. People have become more concerned with reinventing themselves and being a flexible problem solver than being loyal to a company and establishing stable relationships with colleagues (Flanagan, 2008, p. 142). In times of such uncertainty, very few people would be able to meet the standards of adulthood that may have applied in the 1950s. Subsequently, the structure of feeling of being adult may have shifted to mirror this change: being responsible and independent is less centered around material possession and ownership but more around emotions and feeling mature. Thus, the blurring boundaries between work and leisure may further complicate the role that economic gain plays in the notion of adulthood. Despite living in precarious times, the lack of job security does not necessarily indicate neither an inability to make a living nor an inability to become a mature and independent individual.
Being an Authentic Artist and Businessperson
Despite commodifying a hobby, such artists are usually not accused of being a “sell-out” as many members of subcultures who commercialize their identity are (MacDonald, 2001). In discourses surrounding, for example, graffiti art, those who “conform” to mainstream society are treated as “lesser” because they are “unable to recognize and confront the social limitations imposed upon them” and are condemned for losing their authenticity (p. 155). However, none of my interviewees mentioned any disapproval from their social network– in fact, most mentioned having a friend who supported them throughout the whole process and helped them follow their passion.
Sebastian expressed lots of gratitude towards his best friend who encouraged him to not give up when he doubted his own artwork.
I went to a market for new designers in Rotterdam for the first time in Feb 2016 and I sold nothing. So I said okay maybe not now but let’s try another time. So I tried again in march but again only one bowtie. I was very close to giving up and I was so angry with myself but my best friend who believes a lot in me said I had to go to other markets—Rotterdam is not for you. I lost my faith for awhile but she supports me a lot.
Clara described similar experiences and her hesitancy to continue her craft when she was concerned that she was not making enough profit to get by.
I thought it wouldn’t be possible because I thought no one would pay that much money for a stuffed animal. And I was wrong. My mom was like just do it, it’s totally possible, you can do it. She really was one of the reasons I actually thought maybe I should just go for it. And my husband too. There was a time when I wasn’t making enough money and my husband said nah it’s ok I have a job just go ahead and do it. In the beginning you invest so I wasn’t losing money but I also wasn’t making a lot of money… I still don’t make a lot of money– I make some money.
So why is there no sell-out discourse in creative entrepreneurship despite their similarity with street artist who are accused of being “sell-outs” when they commodify an art that they are passionate about. Perhaps a part of the reason is that while creative entrepreneurship has a community of like-minded individuals as in the case of Clara, who refers customers to other plush toy makers when she thinks they would be better suited, there is no existing subculture with its own set of norms and values. And since for there to exist an “authentic,” there must also exist a countering “inauthentic” (Thornton, 1996), this lack of values does not allow for the existence of sell-outs.
Multiple interviewees did view mass-produced goods as problematic and undesirable, which arguably mirrors the language that MacDonald uses to describe the sentiments that graffiti artists have toward “conformists”. For example, Sebastian says that wearing a product from a brand makes you a number. However, he also recognizes the practicality of such goods in a culture where handcrafted and humanely-made products are seen as a luxury. He expressed how he although he refrains from making custom made products because it wants to keep his products from becoming too expensive in order to make it approachable. Thus, consumer who chose to buy mass-produced goods were not seen as inauthentic or lesser, but rather, apathetic or lacking resources.
Learning to Value Uncertainty in Uncertain Times
Despite the precarious times we live in today, my interviewees demonstrated how the uncertainty can be turned into a source of agency and an opportunity for empowerment. By commodifying what they love, they could “work” without feeling like they were working. Hobbies and business do not have to be mutually exclusive and businesses do not have to be strictly economical. By reintroducing the personal touch to products, there was an increase in fulfillment for both the producer and consumer. The commodity was not just a number but a human connection with history. Although this may complicate the concept of adulthood and blur the line between work and leisure, participants of this lifestyle were very happy with their decision. They were doing what they enjoyed with very little concern about hierarchy– they were able to maneuver the existing capitalistic infrastructure in order to achieve their independence from mainstream work culture.
Interviewees with a little more experience living this lifestyle seemed to have more reflective thoughts about their place in society. In particular, Sebastian was very adamant about the sustainability of consumerism and producing handcrafted high quality products despite starting his craft very whimsically with scraps of would left over from school. For all of the interviewees, their craft was a fruit of their passion. Clara did not grow up sewing nor making dolls– she merely liked crafts and plush toys. It seemed that specific skills could be learned and developed later in order to make one’s passions a viable career path. As Jackie said as she asked me about my future plans, “as long as the tree is growing strong and you keep watering it, there is no need to worry what the fruit will be.”
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