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VOL. 132 | NO. 28 | Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Report Measures Memphis’ Maker Economy

By Andy Meek

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Memphis is a veritable “maker city,” a metropolis with a bustling creative economy of artisans and similar entrepreneurs building small enterprises around everything from technology to handcrafted jewelry to packaged foods.

That’s one of the takeaways of a new report out from the stakeholders behind the Made By Project. The report is built around survey results from hundreds of respondents and reflects six months of research, events, roundtable discussions, interviews and more.

The goal was to generate a data-heavy look at Memphis’ so-called maker economy. Beyond that, says Little Bird Innovation co-founder Nicole Heckman, the survey will be used to come up with an economic development plan that helps make the local environment for such entrepreneurs more conducive to starting and sustaining creative ventures.

The project was led by Heckman’s firm, and the findings were presented to a gathering Tuesday, Feb. 7, that included local economic development decision-makers and elected officials, among others.

Among the findings of the survey: most of the “micro-entrepreneurs” who responded – more than 300 in all – are bullish about their ventures. Some 83 percent said they’re looking to grow their businesses over the coming year.

“From a process standpoint, we’re only about halfway through the Made By Project,” Heckman points out. “Now, we’re taking the data and working with makers, economic development representatives, elected officials, national thought leaders, and our advisory board to develop a plan that focuses on closing gaps identified in the research.”

The local EPIcenter organization, she continued, will implement that plan. It’s due out this summer and will focus on programs and infrastructure to support regional maker businesses.

The report’s sampling of those maker businesses covered a range of enterprises that included the furniture and home goods sector; fashion and accessories; packaged food and beverage; and hardware and technology.

Most of those entrepreneurs identified themselves as part time (57 percent), and 68 percent said they run their businesses by themselves. Most of the survey respondents were also white, married and women who identified themselves as well-educated and living mostly in urban areas, with a median age of 40.

Some of the other key themes that rose to the surface after Made By stakeholders talked with survey participants:

• Acquiring capital is a challenge.

• Completely handmade production isn’t scalable for most makers.

• Few makers have the option to pursue small-batch contract manufacturing.

• Makers lack local suppliers for critical raw materials, they often struggle to find space that meets their needs, and local classes and workshops aren’t always meeting makers’ needs to advance their skills.

• It’s often an early introduction to craft and entrepreneurship that can help shape an entrepreneur’s future aspirations.

Those are some of what the EPIcenter-led development plan will likely build on. Many communities around the U.S., said EPIcenter president Leslie Smith, are trying to figure out how to build the infrastructure to support these creative entrepreneurs – and Shelby County can use this data to help do so locally.

Attention to this sector of the economy comes a few months after the prominent online marketplace Etsy dubbed Memphis as “Maker City.” That’s a designation Etsy gives to “strong municipalities that value entrepreneurship, sustainability, and responsible manufacturing with the creative and innovative spirit of the Etsy community,” according to Etsy.com.

“While many of our makers may not initially think of themselves as part of our entrepreneurial ecosystem, this ‘creative class’ of entrepreneurs not only represents viable businesses, but their locally made products represent such an authentic and vibrant part of Memphis,” Smith said.

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