2023 was quite a year for Artisans Cooperative! This is our 2023 Year in Review, a look back on our 1st year in business. It’s remarkable to read through what we did, and we hope it can be a blueprint for other cooperatives getting started to see how we went from a vision to a reality in one year.
We have a lot to celebrate, both big and small.
JANUARY: PLanned the Work
On January 17, we issued a joint press release with the US Federation of Worker Co-ops (USFWC) announcing we’d been awarded their USDA grant funds for start-up support. At the end of the month, we held our first open house, announcing our annual plan and vision to the community.
February – March: Articulated Our Vision with Our Community
In February and March, we held community policymaking efforts to define the details of our vision.
Cooperative Ownership Model. The USFWC grant funds paid for an advisor to guide us through community conversations to write our Ownership Model, which was the blueprint to our bylaws.
Marketplace Technology. The results of our Marketplace Priorities Poll, which solicited community input on what was important to them in a marketplace, shaped our Marketplace Tech Plan we shared in early March.
Handmade Definition. In early February we set out to define what “handmade” means to our community by launching a Handmade Definition Survey. The survey questions and ideas had been in the works for months as we learned about craft theory and studied lessons learned. We shared the Handmade Survey Results in early March and held community conversations that resulted in publishing our Handmade Policy by the end of March.
To engage and grow our community, we held our second open house to introduce these new policies and plans. We also encouraged folks to join the live discussions by publishing an introduction to our Discord.
April-May: Building the Business
On March 31, we issued a joint press release with Start.coop announcing our selection for the 2023 Spring Cooperative Start-up Accelerator. The advisors at Start.coop have developed a curriculum combining the best of the Lean Start-up method with cooperative principles. Their advisors helped us design and build our business fundamentals through an 8-week intensive educational and networking program and provided a $10,000 grant.
Financial Fundamentals. In early April, we launched a Financial Expectations Survey to help guide the cost of member buy-ins and sales commissions. Behind the scenes, we built a basic financial model to help us play with different scenarios, advised by Start.coop. In late April we announced the Financial Survey Results.
In early May, we announced our Funding Plan. Developed with our Start.coop advisors, this plan assumed a mix of funds to cover start-up expenses: donations, grants, member buy-ins, and outside money, likely co-op friendly loans.
Organizational Structure. In mid-April, we announced our organizational transition to sociocracy. Until that time, we had been operating as a loose team of individuals. Sociocracy created a structure for our growing ranks of community members putting in time and created some decision-making structure that could be distributed on an equal plane, not a hierarchy. This self-governance model was recommended by our members and advisors.
Legal Incorporation. On May Day 2023, we officially incorporated as an Oregon cooperative corporation! We wrote the bylaws and legal documents with our attorney, Alexandra Devendra of Aligned Law using the community-written Ownership Model as our blueprint. The cost of legal incorporation fees was paid for by the Start.coop grant we received. The five most active and engaged organizers were self-selected as the Interim Board of Directors until the first election would be held after the planned marketplace launch and busy holiday season, in January 2024.
Policymaking and Planning Continues. In mid-May, we launched the details of non-cash contributions from our Ownership Model with our Points & Tiers Policy. We also planned out the details of how to achieve the vision shared in our Marketplace Tech Plan, sharing a three-stage launch process for the tech called our Marketplace Development Plan. We explained how a trinity of key policies — Handmade Policy, Points & Tiers, and Ownership Model — form the foundation of our cooperative.
May – July: Establishing Our Membership
From late May to end of July, we began the third phase of our Funding Plan and the first phase of our cooperative business by asking our first member-owners to sign up. After so much work, vision, detailing, and policymaking, this was our moment of truth! We set a goal to raise $25,000 in new member buy-ins by July 31. We encouraged early sign-ups by offering special recognition and benefits to the first members as our Founders Circle.
Marketing Begins. To get the word out about membership, we created a social media toolkit for members, and enacted a membership campaign marketing plan. By June 30, we had achieved our $25,000 goal so we raised the stakes: we doubled our goal to $50,000 by July 31 and launched a new campaign of grassroots marketing activities called Grow the Co-op Challenge. We hosted a Reddit AMA on July 10.
Policymaking and Planning Continues. We shared our Data and Points Tracking Plan, which delves into the details of how we’re maintaining accurate membership records and points documented. We wrote a more conversational guide on How to Earn Points, and explained the difference between Points Pledges vs Payment Plans. We also delved into the details of Print-on-Demand from our Handmade Policy. To engage our community in self-governance and fulfill a promise from the Ownership Model, we created a Membership Proposals system, where member-owners can propose any changes they want to see to the cooperative.
Marketplace Development Begins. We began developing our “Minimum Viable Product” (MVP) marketplace behind-the-scenes using existing tech tools on Shopify.
We Met Our Fundraising Goal! Only July 31, we met our $50,000 buy-in goal! This gave us the funds we needed to build the marketplace website and the confidence to proceed forward.
August – September: Establishing the MVP and a new cooperative business
Develop the “MVP” Marketplace. We launched our “Phase I Beta” marketplace in early August with a small selection of Artisans Cooperative branded fundraiser items handmade by members. This was an update of the mutual-aid fundraiser launched in 2022, but moved from members’ own sites to our new, basic marketplace.
Throughout August and September, the Tech Team was in constant communication with our website developer, Yellow Web Monkey (YWM), a woman- and veteran-owned firm. The development work was split the work between YWM and ourselves to both save on costs and make sure we understood how to run and maintain the site ourselves if needed.
Fundraiser artisans were our willing test subjects and helped us try out features and see what was possible and reliable during our “Phase 2 Beta,” the planned October launch. They also helped us write out set-up guide documentation.
In mid-September, we began onboarding all member artisans to the marketplace. Although the MVP did not include all the features we wanted from the Priorities Poll, a task force of sociocracy team members laid out their “minimum viable” goals and we met every goal before deciding to move forward with the launch, as laid out in our late September Tech Report.
Member-Only Communications. In August, we introduced members-only communications: member update emails, password-protected blog posts, member-only Discord channels, and member-only open houses.
Our first post to members-only was also our first membership poll. We asked our members: given our strong start to buy-in fundraising, should we “bootstrap” this business entirely using member hours without seeking outside investments, or should we use co-op friendly outside investments to supercharge our marketplace from day one? The working team did not have enough capacity to both pursue outside capital and build the marketplace. Outside capital would pay for professionals to build the tech. The result was resoundingly clear, with 75% in favor of “bootstrapping” to maintain 100% control over our business. This was a critical poll with major consequences over the next months.
To distribute the work among a growing co-op membership, we created a Member Activities Board (MAB) system for co-op members. The MAB was a way to sign up for points-earning jobs and tasks and a system for interviewing, vetting, and onboarding each one into sociocracy circles.
October: MVP Marketplace Launch!
On October 2, 2023 we announced our marketplace launch to the world. We implemented a special launch marketing plan on all our channels (email, social, SEO, PR, and grassroots). We sent a boosted press release that earned placement in important media publications, all helpful for SEO. As with our membership marketing campaign, we created a grassroots tool kit for members to help share the news.
November – December: Marketing!
Marketing, Marketing, Marketing. We shifted our marketing focus from promoting the cooperative itself (membership) to the marketplace (artisans and products). We maximized free exposure-enhancing tools provided by Shopify, like Pinterest, Meta product feeds, the Shopify “Shop” marketplace, and of course, Google Merchant feeds.
We shared our basic Marketing Plan and implemented a holiday campaign of gift guides, shopping emails, and frequent social posts.
We introduced the Artisans Choice Sale, a section of the marketplace for artisans who choose to put their products on promotion. This is non-coercive, self-empowered sale for artisans who choose whether or not to participate on their own terms.
To convert buyers once they arrived on the marketplace, we also began providing skill share and artisan education to help us all earn more sales, including photography tips, pricing calculators, and writing good product descriptions. As we amassed our first marketplace sales, this earned revenue for the next phase of our Funding Plan.
Looking Forward to 2024
We have a lot to be proud of this year. We went from vision to reality in less than a year, and we did it entirely with our own member patronage (cash and non-cash).
We’re running an End of Year Survey with our members to help us plan our work in 2024. We can’t describe what a privilege it is to work with you, our amazing community who all want the same thing: a people-owned alternative handmade marketplace.
It’s a wonder of the internet that we can all connect from so many places around the world over our shared values and appreciation for fine craftsmanship. We can’t wait to see what our 2nd year in business brings!
About Artisans Cooperative
We are growing an online handmade marketplace for an inclusive network of creatives: a co-op alternative to Etsy.
Shop the marketplace!