lot of people love to craft, and many of them even dream about doing it for a living. There are a lot of plusses to starting an artisan business, but there are many challenges as well. Turning a passion into profit isn’t always easy, but according to some entrepreneurs who have successfully done it, it’s well worth the effort.
“I’ve always been a self-starter, and I find that it’s much better working for myself than others—I can just do what needs to be done,” explained Samantha Story-Camp, owner-operator and ‘Goddess of Soap’ at Pip & Lola's Everything Homemade. “But if you’d told me at the beginning that I would be making soap full-time and selling thousands of bars a month, I would have laughed you out of the room.”
An actress and writer by trade, Story-Camp began making soap after a friend wrote a book about the process. “I bought the book to be supportive and gave away the soap I made as gifts,” she explained. “Then people started asking if I could make more.”
Because the family’s youngest son has allergies and sensitive skin, Story-Camp began crafting lightly scented soap that he would be able to use. “Heavy scents are a huge trigger for a lot of people; for people with migraines, for example, they can be overwhelming,” she explained.
Pip & Lola’s now sells 237 different types of soaps out of their storefront on 8th Avenue in Homestead and is negotiating to open a second location. They also offer their products at local retailers, such as Janoski’s Farm, and on Amazon, Etsy and through their website.
According to Story-Camp, finances are the hardest part of the business, as is being in retail, in general.
“We all have those days where we cry in the shower, and think, ‘What am I doing?’” she said. “But I have the best customer base on the planet, and it’s like they know—someone will send me a note, or make some comment that just makes it worth it. The community that has been created around our soap is just remarkable.”
Story-Camp also gains support from Entrepreneurs Forever (formerly known as the Mansmann Foundation) and gets together once a month to brainstorm with other entrepreneurs. She also appreciates that through their store, Pip & Lola’s is able to give back.
“For every two items we sell, we donate one to a domestic violence shelter, and since August, we’ve given out more than 2,000 bars of soap,” she said. “When I get a note from them, that what we did really meant something, it means a lot.”
Jennifer Orefice, co-owner and artist at Songbird Artistry, got into crafting as a child when she was gifted with a 60,000 piece bead set. She began making bracelets at the age of 12 and was soon selling them at church craft shows.
“My mom and stepdad joined me and enjoyed it, and when I went off to college and graduate school in New York, they made a go of the business with a stand at the Pittsburgh Public Market,” she explained. “I didn’t think it was a viable career long-term, but when I moved back to Pittsburgh in 2014, the space was doing really well, so we all quit our other jobs and focused on the business. We’ve been doing it ever since.”
Now in addition to selling her wares at local events, Orefice also has a brick-and-mortar store at 4316 Penn Avenue in Lawrenceville/Bloomfield, and she sells on Etsy and through her website. In addition to marketing their products, Songbird Artistry also teaches 10 different types of art at their facility, as well as hosts parties and game nights.
“Pittsburgh is an incredible place to be a crafter; people here love supporting local businesses,” she said. “There are also a lot of shows here, like the I Made It! Market, that support artists; even during the pandemic, the owner, Carrie Nardini, has worked incredibly hard to get artists featured and to bring us opportunities.”
For people new to the business side of things, Orefice has some advice.
“Value your artwork; when I was a timid 13-year-old, I didn’t set prices, and took whatever people gave,” she explained. “Value your work and time, and price accordingly.
“My mom’s favorite saying is ‘Leap and the net will appear,’” she added. “Have confidence in what you’re doing and the opportunities will follow.”
She also advised taking advantage of every chance to meet with other artisans and the public. “I did so many shows where I didn’t make a dime, but I always met someone, or gained knowledge, or heard of new opportunities,” she explained.
As for the benefits of starting a craft business, “I love being my own boss and setting my own schedule,” she said. “My first niece was born this year, and while I normally work 80 hours a week, I can change that to be with her.
“I also work with my family, which isn’t always easy, but we made the calculated choice to always get along,” she added. “Now we’re best friends as well as co-owners, and we’re building a legacy that we can leave to my niece—that’s pretty exciting.”
While Carrie Nardini began her career as a jewelry maker, she quickly realized that organizing was her true craft. The owner of the hugely popular I Made It! Market, which travels to different locations in Pittsburgh as well as has a pop-up shop at the Galleria of Mt. Lebanon, Nardini uses her experience to help other artisans succeed on their own.
“When I started in 2007, modern craft fairs were gaining in popularity and more were being developed,” she explained. “Now there are so many opportunities, from offering products online through Etsy and Shopify or a business website, to in-person events that help you connect with your customers.”
Nardini works with hundreds of crafters each year and has learned what works and what doesn’t.
“A lot depends on what you’re selling and who the audience is, but the most important thing is to look at it as a business,” she said. “Be realistic about creating a budget, and figure out who your customer is.
“Not everything you make is meant to be sold; even if you put your heart and soul into it, it might not be successful in a sales situation, the way it would be if you gave it as a gift,” she said. “You need to figure out what people want to buy, and this sometimes means shifting away from what you originally planned to make.”
Nardini stressed the importance of connecting to different artisans and craft groups on Facebook or through other venues, and to research what they are doing price and product-wise, particularly if they sell similar items.
“You need to have a quality product from the get-go,” she added. “It’s far more difficult to sell things made of flimsy materials or that feel cheap; when you think of handmade, you think of unique products that someone put their time, care and effort into.”
Other suggestions include making sure that a business has its own website and email lists (versus only relying on a platform like Etsy or Shopify), and creating a Facebook page as a way to connect with customers.
“You definitely need to be doing something that you have a passion for,” she added. “Take the opportunity to learn new skills and grow as this will help you in future endeavors. And be ready to put your all into it; I truly believe that no one else will ever work as hard for you as you will for yourself.”