01 Aug 2017

The Button Boom and the Button Bust

Trying not to panic and freak out

Other than an A-level in Drawing and Painting with History of Art, I don’t have any formal training in craft, design, or general making-of-things. At university I studied music, and I’ve been playing in bands since I was 16 and had my first gig in a ceilidh band and became hooked.

After university I spent several years muddling along, playing some gigs and working various slightly weird temping jobs (the best one of which was cleaning all of the overhead projectors in the university, under cover of darkness – a job opportunity brought to my attention by my housemate who worked in the audio-visual department). I also kind of accidentally fell into running music workshops with my friends. I say “running”. I did not do much of the running. My friends were all good at running workshops. I was not good at running workshops.

I went on several training courses in order to try to discover how to be good at running workshops, but I did not become good at it. I am a socially awkward, diffident, anxious introvert who is terrified of and terrible at public speaking, and while I know there are many people who fit that description who manage to overcome it all and be brilliant, I was not one of them. I didn’t even *like* running workshops – I was just doing it because my friends were, and letting them down in the process. It became abundantly clear that this sort of thing being my job was Not a Good Idea.

Eventually I made a clean break with it all and managed to get a part time job working in a shop that sold nasty mass-produced lace tablecloths and creepy porcelain dolls. Hardly anyone likes those, so most of the time there weren’t many customers and I just had to do things like dusting and stock-taking. It was such a relief. Also, I was in two bands! (But… not that good at getting gigs or talking on stage. I could only be in bands which contained other people who liked doing those parts.)

So when it turned out that it was possible for me to make a bit of money by making necklaces, photographing them, writing about them and posting it all on the internet on a website – using my natural skills, and doing things I enjoyed, rather than forcing myself into things I found very difficult – I was so pleased. I still didn’t really believe this was something I could do as a full time job, so I didn’t formulate an amazing business plan, quit everything else and go hell for leather on dominating the button jewellery industry – but I kept at it, slowly, and my button jewellery website tided me over financially through a turbulent few years.

“You know what?” said someone, at some point.
“What?” I said.
“If you made ten necklaces all the same, you wouldn’t have to keep taking photographs and putting them on the website all the time, and taking off the ones you’d sold. You’d only have to take one photo for a whole batch. It would be way more efficient.”

I thought about it. They were right. It took me longer to put a necklace for sale on my website than it did to make the necklace itself.

So I went through my box of vintage buttons and I sorted the buttons into piles of those that were all the same, and eventually I was able to come up with a few designs that I could replicate two or more times. I made the necklaces – and of course, yes, it was great – when one sold, instead of removing the old one from the website, making a new one, putting it on the website, I could just do nothing for a couple of iterations. *But* it took such a long time sorting through the box of buttons to find the ones that were the same. If only I could buy some that were all the same, pre-packaged in a bag together…

And this is where everything started to slide. In some ways you could say it was the opposite, and that was when it all took off – it was becoming more efficient and I was growing my business. I started buying bulk, brand new buttons, which all came in a packet together, and making the same design ten, twenty, a hundred times over. And since I was buying these new buttons, why not extend it all out into new-everything-else? New beads, new miniature-teapots, new safety pins – all unusual objects to make jewellery from.

But it wasn’t really what I started from. It was an impression of it. A fake version. But lots of people seemed to want it, and as it was more efficient I was making more stuff, selling more stuff, and, by the look of it, earning more money. It looked like it really could become my actual job.

I took a bit of a leap. I stopped doing most of my other jobs. I moved somewhere else. And then I took my eye off the ball.

Around this time, a few things were happening in the outside world that would have an effect on my tiny online business.

The internet was growing enormously. Some of the biggest and most forward-thinking internet companies realised that if they made it easy for people to sell their crafts online, they could take a cut of the profits and make even more money. Specialist “handmade marketplace” websites emerged, and they had business plans and spent a lot of money on marketing and easy-to-use websites and suddenly lots of people who didn’t know how to before could sell their crafts online.

Buying online became a Real Thing. Buying handmade stuff online became even more of a Thing. And for a brief couple of years, there was a tiny bubble in which my business was doing really well because everyone knew that you could buy crafts online and my website was easy to find in Google. I’d learnt how to make it show up at the top when people searched for “button necklace”, “button jewellery” and “button bracelet” – but the way Google worked in those days was that it just looked at what the website was about, and ranked them by relevance. Mine was unequivocally about button jewellery, so it showed up at the top without me having to do very much other than make sure all the right words were in the right places.

Then something else happened. Google, which was the main thing that sent traffic to my website, changed its search algorithm. Google doesn’t ever say exactly what its algorithm is, but since 2012 it has seemingly taken into account how popular things are, and how many fans something has on social media, and places more emphasis on these things than the content of the website itself. Or, alternatively, you can pay them some money in order to get in the search results. So for me, it was either: pay the money, or spend lots of time on marketing and social media and clickbaiting. Which is not something I’m good at. Not at all. You remember that stuff about being socially awkward? Doesn’t make a good marketer. And so much social media is just full of people being fake. Not to mention: I already thought that a lot of what I was now making, with my brand new buttons and specially-bought beads, was fake too. There was no way I could promote it when I didn’t even believe in it myself.

I looked at it all, and realised that the thing that had enabled me to start doing this as a job – those PayPal buttons you could put on a website – was the beginning of the thing that had turned both the internet and my own business into something horrible and corporate. Once it turned out that people could make money out of something, there were always going to be people who used it to become enormous and too powerful. The PayPal buttons themselves were that, right from the start. The thing that let me do this in the first place is the flipside of the thing that made it all go horribly wrong. And I don’t know what we do about that right now (that’s a whole different essay about the possibility of ethical web-payment systems, perhaps) but here we are.

It may have been the increased competition, it may have been the change to Google’s algorithm, it may have been that people started going straight to Etsy – or probably it was a bit of all three – but my website started losing traffic and sales. I didn’t have a copy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to hand: so I panicked. Instead of coming up with a properly thought-out plan, I just stripped out all the jewellery I was making that seemed inauthentic – all the necklaces made in bulk with brand-new buttons, all the things made with anything I’d bought new for the purpose – I sold them off cheap, then made my website into what I thought to be a beautiful, minimalist, totally authentic little corner of the internet which only sold jewellery that was made from old vintage buttons and that I felt proud of.

Which was really stupid, because a) I didn’t have very many things left that fitted that description, and b) making jewellery in that individually-crafted, photograph-every-one kind of way is, as we established, less efficient and pretty time consuming, and c) my traffic kept falling and falling and nobody was looking at it. So I ended up with no money left! And then I panicked again, and bought some new brightly coloured buttons in bulk from China because I knew that people would buy those kinds of necklaces, they always sold well before! Except… now there was more competition and buttons weren’t so much in fashion any more (and did I mention my website was losing traffic?) and I was stuck with a load of stock that I thought was fake and against all of my principles… *AGAIN*. In other words, I made a complete mess of everything. GO ME.

It was time for a bit of rethink.