James Boardwell

Folksy
"The home of British craft"

What were you doing before Folksy?

I did a few different jobs at the BBC. One day I got I call from someone working in a department called Imagineering. A weird place, that was kind of the precursor to what was Future Media. I’m not quite sure what it was to be honest. They were doing wacky stuff. They asked me to work there. So I worked on interactive TV programmes.

I was doing quite a lot of design research. For an interactive TV programmer for instance, the role I often had was ‘producer’ but what I would actually be doing was figuring out how we understand what the needs are, how will the user access the service, the kinds of interactions that are appropriate. At the time at the BBC (2000/01) that was only just starting to be done.

And it was around this time you got the idea for Folksy?

Yes, I was doing some research for TV programmes around 2002/03 I heard a talk from Clay Shirky and he was talking about Live Journal. It was an early blogging platform and he was describing something he’d found really interesting. Crowds of people were coming together to define information architecture through tagging. The term at the time was a “Folksonomy”. The core navigation across this whole platform was defined by these user defined tags.

At the time the .com boom was all about commercialising the web. He was saying that actually it was all about connecting. A lot of this was driven by stay at home mums in America. They were geographically cut off, they were often depressed or bored, they had young children and wanted some support. They were finding that through other people on the internet. One of the ways they did this was by sharing the things they had made.

I found it just amazing, I was really taken with it. I thought at the time, I’d love to do a creative business and explore things around people making things and sharing them. So that was the first thought that led to developing Folksy as a platform.

Did you have the technical skills to build the prototype or did you enlist some help?

I did a lot of background research under the auspices of pretending this would be a good programme for the BBC. But I just did it because I thought it was interesting and it never got made into anything. I didn’t have the technical skill but I’d gotten to know a few people in the BBC and pulled in a few favours. We ended up with some brilliant people for next to no money. Through various referrals we built an Alpha/Beta and that became the live site.

“It took us a while to figure out what to do to build an audience.”

How did you get the word out about Folksy?

We started to build it in April 2006 and we had a working prototype by June. We didn’t release anything for about 18 months after that because we didn’t know what to do. It took us a while to figure out what to do to build an audience. We started to speak to a group called Craft Mafia in Manchester. They were a craft group with a strong DIY, punk and political ethos. I asked for help, and Sally from Craft Mafia gave me some great advice about how to connect with different communities around craft. We were quite naive and just contacted a lot of communities saying, do you want to help us out?

We found that the forum was the main engine for generating interest. Facebook was around but wasn’t particularly used, there was no dominant interest platform in the UK for craft and making. So people were using the forum a lot. We were on there everyday, usually with a glass of wine or a pint of beer. Just being welcoming and getting people talking.

Is Folksy profitable?

We launched in early 2008 and it became quite popular quite quickly. We didn’t really have a decent revenue model for it, it was just free and we subsidised it. 6-9 months in we started to introduce a listing fee and a sales fee. It was profitable at that point but mainly because we weren’t taking any salary from it. At the end of 2009 we employed our first person. We started to ramp up and grow quite quickly and hit a peak in terms of use in 2011. We had well over 5 million people coming to the service a year. Listings were sometimes thousands a day.

What happened after that was, we had some faulty assumptions which we didn’t really test. We actually did this in a really bad way and thousands of sellers left because of it. There were a lot of items on the site that were poor quality and we were trying to go after more high quality sellers. When we spoke to those people they said they didn’t want to list their stuff next to work that wasn’t as good. So we made some changes to discourage some low quality stuff such as assembled jewellery.

We redesigned the site so that it wasn’t based around tags anymore, and introduced  a formal taxonomy / category navigation. We were trying to make it more professional. We were trying to make it more professional. Profitability wise it was more profitable for a while after the changes but in terms of use, it declined. We saw a decline in the use of the forum, although social media use was rising and has done ever since so that became less significant on the platform.The upshot of our work in 2012 is that we alienated a lot of users of our service

Who owns Folksy?

I own it with someone called Dan Barker. He is an analyst and came into the business last year. I’ve known him for years, he’s an e-commerce specialist but also a smart and nice person. The team consists of two full time employees and 3 support staff.

I’m still involved but I’m fairly hands off. I chip in where I can add value but Folksy can’t pay me what I could earn elsewhere. A small team run the business and I catch up with them once a fortnight. We have rough sprints which they define and I’ll be involved at the start of the sprint prioritising the backlog.

Biggest Mistake?

I think we made a mistake in being a bit closed off in the early years and not open enough. With hindsight I would have done a lot more partnership work and developed the supplies side. We’ve seen the rise of social media and selling that way, we missed the boat on that. We mistakenly believed that a niche service would always be better. We just didn’t keep our eyes open to what was happening, and partner up with other people doing interesting things enough.

“We just didn’t keep our eyes open to what was happening”

Proudest Moment?

The thing I found most personally satisfying was in 2012. It was an event in Ecclesall woods in Sheffield. We got makers and speakers from around the world we never thought we’d get. The feedback we had from that event was extraordinary and we realised we had all this good will from within the craft community. People came from Sweden, Canada and I felt really proud and amazed that we managed to put something on like that.

Also, hearing the user stories of sellers on Folksy. When you hear someone has just sold their 3,000th item for instance, that gives us a real sense of why we do it.

Was that a one off or an experiment for a regular thing?

We did the event for our 5 year anniversary primarily. But also in the back of my mind there were two things: 1) if were to do an event, how would we do it and what would it look like? 2) Could it be profitable?

We made a small amount of money on that event, but we realised that there is an enormous amount of work that goes into organising a good event. If we were to do more of them we would have to create a format we could repeat easily where we wouldn’t have to recreate the event every time. We may do something for our ten year anniversary that’s coming up.

Will social media eventually consume platforms like Folksy or will they always be around?

Social media is going to be far more important for our users as a means of selling work. Having a direct relationship with your customers is something that these makers want. They want to own that relationship. We are aware of that and it is increasingly easy to do that. People who do it well are able to tell a story, take good photos and act like a micro global brand.

When Facebook local really kicks off I think that could be a game changer. But Amazon and Google have both tried ecommerce for crafters this and failed, so it’s not like a big player can come in and just roll us over.

What is the future for Folksy?

We’re looking at becoming less reliant on end sales revenue. So that could be through learning or supplies. We’re going to explore that in the next 12 months. We have a very close relationship with our community and that is something we do better than the competition.

Still thirsty for more? 🍺 Check out some more interviews