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Fred Wilson is a constant source of intriguing chatter on the startup tech sector. Through his prolific blog, AVC, Musings of a VC in NYC, Wilson offers a revealing and insightful view of the venture capital process, and specifically his VC firm, Union Square Ventures which focuses on early stage startups.
Recently, Wilson blogged about the types of investments he’s looking to make in 2010. There were some predictable ideas (mobile technology and gaming), but one note caught my attention: “New forms of commerce and currency on the web.” Union Square Ventures was an early investor in Etsy, the popular online marketplace for handmade goods which I’ve noted numerous times on Merge, and Wilson laments that there aren’t more similar opportunities for buyers and sellers to congregate and do business online. He takes this a step further with the analogy of the San Telmo marketplace in Buenos Aires, which he suggests is a model for the type of experience that blends the social and commercial that is missing online now.
This is a point that I have been making recently as I’ve reflected on the iPhone app development boom and the combination of the iPhone Developer Program/iTunes Store that makes it so relatively easy to enter the market. I think the success of Etsy and iPhone apps demonstrates clearly that, when the path from idea to market is made simple, efficient, and inexpensive, designers and creative professionals will participate in a big way. I hope Fred Wilson’s prediction comes true and more such marketplaces begin to emerge in the year ahead. Please post a comment if you are seeing other examples that I’ve missed here.
I had the pleasure of presenting a series of workshops on design and entrepreneurship last weekend at AIGA Minnesota’s Design Camp. Held on the shores of Gull Lake in central Minnesota, Design Camp is a hidden gem among design conferences featuring internationally known speakers and a wide range of breakout content. Special thanks to AIGA MN for the invitation and the hospitality.
I always begin my workshop sessions by asking attendees what their reasons are for not pursuing a great business idea, and inevitably the top three are: money, time, and know-how. Essentially what I’m hearing is that the process is simply too daunting and complicated. So, I was intrigued and excited when Laura Shore, Senior VP of Communications and Innovation Strategy at Mohawk Fine Paper sent me an email announcing the launch of a new Mohawk project called the Felt & Wire Shop. Felt & Wire is a curated online marketplace showcasing products designed mostly by communication designers.
The products on Felt & Wire all have a paper connection of some sort (not surprisingly), but the range is impressive. Stationery and gift cards, invitations, wrapping paper, posters, prints, and calendars by some of the top names in communication design: AdamsMorioka, Chen Design, and Grant Design Collaborative among many others. Some of my favorite pieces are from Pie Bird Press in Albany, CA, which features bold, graphic imagery with a blend of pop art sass and retro silkscreen charm.
Importantly, the submission and review process is streamlined and user-friendly. A simple online upload of jpegs and/or video and some background info and designers are one big step closer to bringing their ideas to market.
While curated online marketplaces for gift items are not a new phenomenon (Etsy, which launched in 2005, is one of the most prominent), Felt & Wire is unique in its clear focus on communication designers. I see a strong correlation between the Felt & Wire Shop and the machine that Apple has developed for the iPhone app development process. In both cases, the part of business development that intimidates most designers becomes so simple that it’s almost a non-issue. This highlights a big need—and opportunity—in the area of designer-driven entrepreneurship: I would love to see more venues like Felt & Wire that would allow designers working in other media to have this same speedy route to market. Along this line, I hope Mohawk will recognize how wide open this space is right now and expand the vision for Felt & Wire (nudge, nudge, Laura).
For those of you heading to Memphis this weekend for the AIGA Make/Think conference, check out the Felt & Wire booth. In the meantime, here is an excerpt from an email exchange Laura Shore and I had discussing the launch of Felt & Wire.
How did the idea for the Felt & Wire Shop come about?
Two years ago, I visited the New York Stationery Show for the first time and was blown away by the smaller, more creative booths. First of all, the work was fantastic. Second, as we spoke with exhibitors it was clear that many were using our paper for their products. How could we find a way to capture that energy and recommunicate it back out to the world? How could we help promote these micro-enterprises through our network of connections? As the idea percolated down, I started thinking of all the cool things I’ve received over the years from designers we’ve worked with. Every graphic designer I know is a closet product designer. They just don’t have a means of distributing their products. The retail market for someone in manufacturing and communications design seems byzantine. Quantities are tiny. I’ve never figured out how anyone could make money at it!
About that time I got an e-mail from Josh Chen, a great designer in San Francisco, who was selling product on a marketplace site. I discovered Etsy and started thinking about ways to connect the dots.
Were there models out there that you were emulating?
There are a number of marketplace sites out there that we took hints from.
How are products chosen to be in the shop?
The site is curated by a panel who manage the balance of content and also ensure that all the work meets our high standards. You sign up on the site and submit your candidates. It’s very straightforward and intuitive. We want this to be a place where the press comes to see what’s best in paper-based design. And where the best designers will feel comfortable showing their work.
What about the type of products you’ll accept—is it just paper-driven?
We’ll consider anything that’s paper driven—or services that support paper-driven design. I’m still looking for lampshades, wallpaper!
Are there any sales trends you’ve been able to spot so far?
Still way too soon to tell but if my credit card is any indication, I think it will do very well.
What are the long term goals for the site?
Every day we have new ideas. We’re working on ways to support AIGA chapters and other non-profit design-driven organizations. We’d also like to find ways to connect designers to digital printers so that they don’t have to inventory everything they sell. I would like see posters and prints from my design heroes (and heroines). And if designers are true to form, I will be continually amazed by what product ideas come forward as candidates.
It seems like Mohawk may be positioning itself as a leader in designer-driven entrepreneurship, am I right?
We want to be a leader in a number of areas. I agree with you, there’s a huge void here!