For creative twenty-somethings, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to turn their craft into a living wage. Many have turned to what some call the “gig economy,” a nebulous term that encompasses freelancers in writing, design, and art. Although it poses challenges, independent minded young people looking to pursue their passions are changing the way we think about employment.
One such young woman is Julie Blessman, owner of Etsy jewelry shop Margaret Drive. An art teacher by day, Julie spends her evenings and weekends making her varied designs, which include necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. It’s a time consuming project, but one Blessman enjoys a great deal. That sentiment lies at the heart of what’s driving the “gig economy:” It’s not always easy, but it’s fulfilling.
Julie had always enjoyed creative outlets, and her parents encouraged her interest. “I am so lucky to have grown up in a house where my mom and dad let me explore my creativity and taught me how to build and create. I always went to my parents for guidance and support on my little projects,” Julie shared via email. In her parents she had quite the skill set to learn from: her father is a self-taught carpenter, and her mother is an all-around crafter. When it came time to name her business, Julie decided to pay homage to the role her parents played in encouraging and inspiring her creativity by naming her shop Margaret Drive, the street she grew up on.
Jewelry was a hobby long before Julie decided to start Margaret Drive. She and friends often made their own necklaces and earrings in high school, and Julie made her own accessories for prom and homecoming. While studying Art at Eastern Illinois University, Julie took a class on metals and jewelry that inspired her to learn more about the craft. Her interest in metalwork hasn’t faded over the years, and she hopes to work more with metal in the coming year. In fact, her parents recently bought her a blowtorch that has sadly gone unused so far because, as Julie said, “I don’t think my landlord or boyfriend would appreciate me using a blowtorch in my apartment.”
So what made her decide to turn a hobby into a business? Julie credits the encouragement for friends and family, who saw the potential in her unique creations. With the help of her boyfriend, Julie started selling her jewelry at a local farmers’ market alongside other artisans, and she was thrilled to see people were loving her work. She quickly started visiting similar markets around central Illinois, and it became apparent immediately that interest was growing. “Everytime I set up shop people would ask me if I had an Etsy site so they could tell their family and friends about my jewelry. So I knew that I needed to get on social media and Etsy if I wanted my shop to grow.”
Setting up a business can be intimidating, but Julie has been able to turn to both Etsy and her boyfriend for support. “Chris has been super helpful. He has a business degree so he has given me lots of strategies and has helped me stay organized as I put my merchandise on the internet.” Using Etsy as her platform has been a great experience for Julie. She’s found the site user-friendly and very encouraging for female artists, both of which are crucial for young women juggling two jobs and trying to start a business. Julie also enjoys the global reach Etsy has: “I think that there is something really empowering about making and selling my jewelry online to people all over the world.”
Julie’s shop offers a combination of handmade and repurposed pieces, ranging from colorful statement necklaces to simple pin earrings. Although she describes her process as “hectic,” she finds inspiration in people and culture. “I love the idea that people associate themselves with specific colors and styles.” She enjoys visiting thrift stores to find new pieces to repurpose or hunt bead stores for interesting materials. Julie treats her craft as something in constant evolution, skipping nothing that catches her eye. “My whole process is a lot of trial and error. I make something and if I don’t like how it looks, I take it apart and start over until I like what I see.”
Dividing her time between teaching and running a business isn’t easy, and means early mornings and long nights. But Julie thrives on being busy, and has never been one to idle away hours. “I have to be working on a project or I get antsy.” Although teaching requires a lot of time to plan and grade, Julie has found a balance that allows her to appreciate both Margaret Drive and teaching as creative endeavours. “The great thing about teaching art all day at school is that my mind never stops thinking creatively… I feel lucky to have two jobs that allow me to create and design.”
Julie has some hard-won advice for those interested in starting an Etsy shop. While Margaret Drive has been a huge success, a 2012 attempt to start a shop wasn’t quite such a hit because she didn’t research her target audience or how to run and market a business. The experience drove home how much preparation it takes to run a shop, and she spent two years getting ready to relaunch. Her major takeaways are “do your research, stay organized and love what you do.” She also encourages finding a system that works for you and your schedule, a move that she feels has been crucial to her business strategy.
What’s next for Margaret Drive? Julie hopes it will be a year of expansion for her shop and her craft. Watch for jewelry with materials like metal and wood going up on her shop soon. She’s also hoping to visit more artisan fairs and festivals to get the Margaret Drive name out there. One exciting goal: “I am really looking into selling my jewelry at Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago this coming summer.”