Artisans Cooperative logo

Interview with Artisans Cooperative

We’re in the midst of our month-long Co-Optober celebration, and this week is all about how great the cooperative model is for arts and media organizations. There are co-ops across all sorts of creative industries, and we’re so excited to feature a few of them this week. 

Posted by C.N. Josephs on 16th October 2023


Today, we’re featuring a co-op that I’m personally very excited about: Artisans Cooperative!

Artisans Cooperative is an Etsy alternative seeking to create a marketplace for artisans free from corporate interference. I first heard about them many months ago, through a promotional post that crossed my Tumblr feed. They stuck in my mind due to their model, their ethics, and their commitment to treating artists fairly. When the staff at MaxFunHQ started brainstorming cooperatives we could reach out to, they were the first ones I suggested!

Back in August, I was able to hop on a call with Valerie, the interim board director over at Artisans. We had a great conversation about the founding of the cooperative, corporate greed, and how she hopes Artisans Collective will grow. 

(By the way—Artisans Cooperative just had their official launch, so you should definitely check our their website!)

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

C.N. (Maximum Fun): So, I would just like to start by talking a little bit about how Artisans Cooperative was formed. I know that your cooperative was formed in the wake of the big Etsy strike, and I would love to hear a little more about the story there. How did the founders of Artisans Cooperative go from just participating in the strike to making an alternative to Etsy? 

Valerie (Artisans Cooperative): Yeah. So, in some ways, this is my personal story. I’m calling in right now from [my and my partner’s] leather workshop. We’ve been selling online—handcrafted leather bicycle accessories and other things—since 2009. We got started on Etsy, and so we’ve seen Etsy go through a lot of changes since 2009. Even as early as 2012, we could see very plainly that Etsy did not have the sellers’ best interests at heart, and there were even other attempts at protests before [the Etsy strike in 2022]. But fast forward to February 2022: they’ve increased fees, they’ve been treating us more and more like gig workers, making these policies that require us to answer emails within 24 hours, even on weekends. Then they announced that they were going to raise the transaction fee—which is one of many fees—by 30%, in the same week that they announced they had record profits. Honestly, you can’t hear those two announcements next to each other and think anything but corporate greed. 

Back in 2012, [my husband and I] started our own website using Shopify, and now Etsy is only just a fraction of our income. So when the Etsy strike happened, we were in a position to be able to participate. And I need to acknowledge that not everybody had the ability to participate in the strike, which I totally understand and respect. But I reached out to the [Etsy strike] organizers and just said, “Good job; can I help?” 

So I was working for them as a media manager, and the strike got a lot of media attention, but it didn’t actually change anything—Etsy didn’t change their policies. Obviously, they didn’t drop their fees. So it was good that we drew attention to it, but when the strike was over, the leadership there wanted to keep organizing against Etsy. They felt like Etsy just has the market, and there’s no way we can compete. And I just did not want to bang my head against Wall Street. So we started talking to some other folks that were on the Etsy strike Discord who were also interested in starting a co-op. I don’t think it was my idea alone. I think a lot of minds had the same idea at the same time: “Why fight Etsy? Why not just do it ourselves as a co-op?” So it really started with three of us, [me and Danny and Mark].

C.N.: I would love to hear more about how Artisans Cooperative is structured internally. Who makes decisions about how the business is running, about what the fees look like? 

Valerie: We’re organized as a sociocracy. We’re all learning as we go, but basically what that means is that we’re organized into circles or teams. And each team has to have an overlap of at least one or two people to make sure that important messages are being communicated throughout the organization, sort of like an overlapping series of Venn diagram bubbles where every bubble is somehow connected to the whole through some sort of overlap of other bubbles. So we have the Board of Directors bubble, making the hard decisions and the major financial decisions, but we also have a money team who figures out financial options and does the bookkeeping and accounting and looks at fundraising options and so forth. Within the bubbles, there’s a lot of autonomy for people to do their own work. And deference is given to each other, so it’s not hierarchical, but it still has structure. 

We attempt to make all decisions in sort of a tiered process. So, within each circle, whether that’s the Board of Directors or whether that’s a committee working on a fundraising project or something, we all aim for consensus—everybody agrees—but sometimes that’s not possible. And if we hit a point where we’re not reaching consensus, then we will default move down to consent: does anybody object? If we feel like we’re at an impasse, then we will go to a majority vote. Only a couple of times have we had to resort to a majority vote.

C.N.: Maximum Fun just completed our transition to being a co-op this past June. It was a great process and we are so glad we’re doing it, but it was also a pretty long and hard process that does present unique challenges. Do you think that Artisans Cooperative has faced any unique challenges because of the cooperative, member-owned model?

Valerie: Definitely. First of all being that, even the people who are working on it—myself included—are learning about cooperatives as we go. There’s just not enough experience and education about cooperatives out there, and the more we can talk and explain how awesome they are—and their faults and downsides, too!—I think the better off we’ll all be. 

Even just explaining over and over again to new folks who are really excited about the idea that we’re not a nonprofit organization is a conversation we had to have many times. And maybe you guys didn’t experience this as much as we did, but being a startup co-op, most people assumed that we would get investor funding. [They would ask,] “Why are you coming to the members for money? Why would you take money from artisans to do this?” without necessarily understanding that they are the owners and the way that we keep ownership is by not getting investors. It’s been educational.

I would say that really what made everything for us was getting accepted into the Start.Coop accelerator program. We were lucky enough to be in their spring accelerator, and what came with that was a $10,000 grant, and that money paid for the lawyer. And by the time we met with the lawyer, we had basically already as a group figured out what we wanted the incorporation documents to say. So we have been super efficient and lean in using the cooperative community support. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t also say that before the Start.Coop accelerator program, which helped us a lot with learning and came with $10,000, we also did the US Federation of Worker Co-op Clinic where they paired us with grant money to pay for advisors who helped us figure out what we wanted those incorporation documents to say so that when we did have that $10,000, we were ready to go. 

C.N.: Artisan’s Cooperative is just about to get off the ground. We’re currently talking in August, and I believe you’re hoping to launch in October, so this interview will probably be up right around when you’re launching. Since the cooperative has not fully launched yet, it’s hard to talk about what it looks like right now, but I would just love to hear: what do you hope for the future of Artisans Cooperative? What are you hoping that the co-op will look like in five or ten years from now?

Valerie: First of all, I just hope that we have the trajectory Etsy did 15 years ago: we’re starting off small and scrappy, but we’ve got a unique collection of artisans, and we grow and we grow, and the sales come in, and the customers find us, and they like the experience better. Then we get more memberships, we show that cooperative platforms like this work, and we lower our fees. 

And my dream is that we can then expand this into more seller support services. One of the things that’s the hardest reality for artisans is we want to spend our time making, and unfortunately, we have to ship things and figure out custom forms and print out packing slips. And, if we could come up with, for example, a co-op managed warehouse or fulfillment system, so that artisans just sent us the product and they didn’t have to worry about shipping it, that’s an example of an ancillary service that I could imagine. 

We’re also talking about what it would take—and this might come sooner—to have a way to connect artisans together to fulfill larger orders. So, if a values-aligned company like Maximum Fun wanted to give out VIP gifts of hand knitted keychains, and it would be too much work for one artisan to take on—but a group of artisans could. So we’d bring more business by working together on products like corporate gifts or custom manufacturing that maybe switches hands. Not just lots of artisans who have the same skills, making a lot of things, but maybe one person is making leather patches, another person is making a quilt, and a third person sews the patch onto the quilt or something like that. 

So, the collaborations and the ways that we could work together is another way that I really hope that we grow and would be completely unique from anything else that’s out there because the other platforms don’t connect you with each other.

C.N.: Absolutely, absolutely, yes. I’ve just got a couple more questions. So first, I just want to ask—not just as a representative of the Artisans Cooperative, but just as yourself—what does it mean to be an artisan who is part of the cooperative?

Valerie: To me, it’s almost inseparable, because I’ve been a part of this and wanted this for my own business for so long. One of the challenges that we’ve had as an artisan business is needing to diversify our sales—that’s the number one reason that we’re here today and why there’s a fire under us to get it launched by October. I’m personally worried that the powers that be are making it harder to run your own website: more expensive and more risky. Even though that’s our main source of sales, it may start to become just too complex and out of reach, and we’ll need to be more reliant on marketplaces again. 

And I don’t want to go to Amazon or eBay. I’ve actually tried them both. I hated it and it was a bad idea. And I’ve tried going to the smaller limited alternatives, and I didn’t get any sales on there because there weren’t enough customers and we have a very niche product that doesn’t appeal to everyone. And so I really want this for my business because I will have that governance control to make sure that it stays a good platform and doesn’t charge too much in fees and stays inclusive and stays broad. I don’t just want a seat at the table to talk about things, I want us to own the table. I want us to actually earn the value that we are providing by creating these beautiful and interesting items, all of us, and putting it there in one place.

C.N.: Absolutely. I’m going to ask kind of a broad question. What are your hopes for the future of art as a field? Do you think that more people are going to start embracing the cooperative model? 

Valerie: That’s a good, big question. In some ways I feel like this relates a lot to the discussion of AI. Maybe I’m a naive optimist or I’ll just present my thoughts and my vision for it in an optimistic way. Because, otherwise, we’re all toast. I don’t necessarily buy that we’ll have to fall into their system and I don’t necessarily buy that AI is going to outcompete artists.

I think that it’s confusing things right now and we’re in this weird transition time. But I believe that ultimately, human beings are flexible and they want to do good. And that’s what we’ve found with our customers year after year. I’ve made the most incredible connections with people who genuinely care and want to buy something that was made by someone, who loves what they’re doing and cares what they’re doing, and they end up having a better experience because of that, and they come back. 

C.N.: Based on just your experience so far, do you have any advice for people who might be reading this interview who are interested in forming their own co-op?

Valerie: Yeah, definitely. Where to start? It really would depend on their co-op. If you’re building a worker co-op, go first to the US Federation of Worker Co-ops, if you’re in the US—I think maybe also Canada? They’ve got a co-op clinic and they’ve got a free 101 that just tells you the basics and gets you started. There’s a lot of co-op produced learning about what a co-op is. And what we found is that we were able to get a lot of the way there just from the incredibly awesome self education material that’s out there. 

Learn, learn, and once you sort of get to the point where you’re ready to start doing things, I found that the cooperative community was there to support and guide us through several organizations—not just the federation, but also the Sustainable Economies Law Center in California, and then the Start.Coop accelerator. So, It’s just being on the same page with your co-founders and introducing yourself to the cooperative community, because we all want to help each other and we want to help you start your co-op too.

C.N.: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much for meeting with me. I’m so excited to see how all of this continues to grow.

Valerie: Thank you so much. We really appreciate you.