Editor’s Note: We’re so excited to share this interview we did with aftcra founder Erica Riegelman. aftcra is an online marketplace where you can buy and sell American handmade products. Just a few minutes into my first conversation with Erica I knew that she was one of us: a fellow lover and supporter of the handmade movement. Erica shares her inspiration for starting aftcra as well as some awesome tips for online shop owners to make their shop stand out and drive traffic to it, what sets aftcra apart from other online marketplaces and some seriously inspirational advice. -Nicole S.
What prompted you to start aftcra?
Handcrafted products have always been a passion of mine. I grew up in a household where handmade products were treated with respect. Growing up my mother was a maker. She had a talent that I wished that I had – the ability to make something beautiful from nothing. She was always creating, whether it be ceramics, painting, woodworking or baking.
When my mom went to sell some life-sized wooden witches for Halloween in Northern Wisconsin boutiques, she was frustrated by the incredibly large fee they wanted to take from her sales. So, before she threw in the towel, I tried to find a way to help her and other artisans like her by creating an online marketplace that is easy for makers to create their own shop page and list products for free. Over the next year aftcra was born as an easy and affordable online marketplace for makers to sell their handmade wares.
I also wanted aftcra to emphasize another passion of mine – shopping locally. aftcra may be an online marketplace where people around the world can shop, but all of the products on aftcra are handmade by makers that live in the USA. So many shoppers and bloggers want to easily access locally made products, and with aftcra they have the ability to do just that! We’ve had an overwhelming amount of users reach out to us to share their appreciation for a marketplace dedicated to only handmade goods and to makers in the USA.
How is aftcra different from other online marketplaces?
aftcra has four major differentiators from other online marketplaces:
1. aftcra only features artists who hand-make their goods. Many websites allow non-handmade products or manufactured goods. We believe in supporting our small businesses who may only rely on a sewing machine, a circular saw, or just their two hands. We are strict with our handmade-only guidelines, but there are some makers that are permitted to use outside help to create their product (i.e. using a local printing shop for a wall print). You can see more about our guidelines here: https://www.aftcra.com/become-a-seller.
2. aftcra is only limited to American artisans, so any shoppers looking to support the made in America movement, or a maker in their community, can come to aftcra and know that they are doing their part to support their local community.
3. aftcra only charges a fee when you sell your product, so the only risk it takes for you to open a shop on aftcra is your time to upload your goods. Other sites charge a monthly fee, or a fee for every product you list. And if your product doesn’t sell after four months, you get charged to relist your goods. We keep it simple with a transaction-only fee.
4. aftcra is a family-owned business located in Milwaukee, WI. We are a very small team of handmade enthusiasts who are here to not only help you set up your shop and list your products, but to promote your goods. Any questions, concerns, suggestions you may have are received by us and responded to within 48 hours.
What characteristics do really successful online shops have in common?
Successful shops on aftcra typically have a few characteristics in common:
1. A consistent brand with matching photography
Your brand has a theme that needs to be consistent amongst all of your work. If your brand is boho-chic but your product images give off a retro pop vibe, then you’re not speaking to your customers.
Also, product photography should be clean with as much information – and as few distractions – as possible. If you’re showcasing your handcrafted bracelet, don’t only use a whole body shot of a model wearing your bracelet where a customer can barely make out the detail. Include a variety of photos – up close, whole body, on a person, alone – to let the customer know how the bracelet really looks.
2. Detailed product descriptions and titles
When you’re working on your product descriptions and titles, shy away from only using your brand names for your products. For example, if I’m looking for a red, white and blue dog collar and a shop has it listed as “Star Spangled Beagle” I’m not going to immediately recognize that this product is a dog collar. Be sure to add descriptive language like “Star Spangled Beagle – Patriotic Dog Collar” so I understand what I’m about to click on before I dismiss your product.
And when you’re creating your product descriptions, think like a customer. As a consumer (playing off the dog collar example again) I am going to be looking for information about durability, size, how will it fit my dog, how does it close, is it safe, etc. The more information you provide to the customer, and the least amount of steps the customer needs to make, the more likely they will purchase your product. If you leave a customer with questions then you may lose that sale.
3. Engaged shop owners
My biggest pet peeve is when shop owners don’t respond to customer emails in a timely manner. If you’re trying to sell a product and you aren’t responsive, you will most likely lose the sale because the buyer will feel like you won’t follow through on the order. Answer emails right away, be friendly and listen to your customers.
Also, if you have a social media page, be sure that you are responding to customer inquiries and are being engaging.
How do you balance your work and personal life?
Ah, the age-old question of how to have a work-life balance. Honestly, it’s tough. If you’re considering starting a business, or you’re growing one, you have to go into this time of your life knowing that you will be making sacrifices to get to where you want to be. Your business is only as successful as the amount of time you put into it. It won’t be an easy road, and your friends and family may give you some slack about it from time to time, but you don’t want this opportunity to pass you by.
To make sure that I could always get my work done I would take one weekend a month and work as often as possible. That meant working when my daughter took her naps and working the second she fell asleep until the wee hours of the morning. This also means a lot of parties and family get-togethers get missed, but if you plan it appropriately you can avoid missing meaningful moments.
What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve gotten (or favorite inspiring creative/business quote)?
I have so many quotes and affirmations that I say to myself every day. These are some of my favorites.
“There are always a million reasons not to do something.” Starting a business is challenging. During the process of getting your business off of the ground you will be given so many forks in the road where you can take the easy way out and quit. Typically the road less traveled is the road you have to walk, and it can be a scary and lonely place. You just have to remind yourself that you have an opportunity (starting and owning a company) that so many people dream of, and the only way it can be successful is if you put your “all” into it. The more you take risks, the more you grow as a person. It’s an incredibly fulfilling time of your life, so be sure to enjoy the journey while you’re living it.
“Nobody knows what they are doing.” I also like to remind myself in times when I am being tested professionally or I feel frustrated that nobody really knows what they are doing. Every CEO, Marketing Agency Exec or expert in your field takes risks and makes gut-based decisions; nobody is given a map of guaranteed success. It just doesn’t exist. You have to create your own roadmap.
“You know more than you think.” If you’re like me you tend to fall into the category of having Imposter Syndrome where you constantly doubt your knowledge and experience thinking others know more than you. Take my advice – STOP DOING THAT! You have a wealth of knowledge from your business and life experience. So, stop selling yourself short. Be aware of what you know (and what you don’t know), continue to grow by exploring areas of interest, reading about your industry, and you’ll soon be seen as an expert.
What are the best ways online shop owners can drive traffic to their shops?
When you start considering your options for marketing, really review what avenues work best for what audiences. For social media, typically Twitter is more business-focused, Pinterest is consumer-driven, and Instagram and Facebook speak to both audiences. Pick one or two social media outlets that speak to your final user and start there. Do not immediately jump into all social media streams – you will find yourself completely overwhelmed and over-worked.
Newsletters are a great way to engage your customers, but there is no secret sauce on how frequently you need to be sending them out or what content your customers want to see. You will need to conduct tests on your newsletter group to see what works best and what doesn’t seem to connect with your audience. And, if a newsletter is something that you want to do, be sure to promote newsletter sign-ups on your website, your social media accounts, your business cards, and anywhere else you can direct traffic. If nobody knows about your newsletter, then you won’t have anyone sign up for it. Make it known!
And lastly, if it is taking you far too long to create a newsletter or your social media strategy/posts then it’s time for you to ask for help. You can’t be expected to be an expert in all fields of your business. When you are wasting time trying to learn something and it’s just not clicking with you, then you need to explore delegating out that responsibility to someone who can provide educated answers.