Initiative Brings Together Craftspeople And The Businesses That Might Buy Their Products

By Joyce Gannon Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The Craft Business Accelerator is an initiative that matches Pittsburgh-area craft and artisan enterprises with real estate firms, designers, architects and other businesses interested in using locally sourced products in residential and commercial projects.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Kelsey Henson was making furniture in her woodworking shop in September 2015 when officials from Trek Development stopped by as they toured the Homewood business incubator where her small firm, Bones and All, was then located.

The Trek team liked the handcrafted pieces built by Ms. Henson and her spouse and business partner, Zak Kruszynski, so much that the officials asked the couple to design benches for the lobby of the Brew House Lofts building Trek was redeveloping on the South Side.

A few months later, Brian Keyser, a New York restaurateur, also stopped by. He ordered a handful of tables for his venture, Casellula @ Alphabet City, a cheese and wine cafe that opened last month in the City of Asylum project on the North Side. That initial order soon grew to 55 cafe tables.

For the fledgling woodworking company, the custom orders provided a significant boost to the bottom line, Mr. Kruszynski said. And they didn't occur quite by happenstance.

The restaurant owner and Trek had been made aware of Bones and All's expertise through the Craft Business Accelerator -- an initiative that matches Pittsburgh-area craft and artisan enterprises with real estate firms, designers, architects and other businesses interested in using locally sourced products in residential and commercial projects.

The accelerator was launched as a pilot effort in 2015 by Bridgeway Capital, a Downtown-based nonprofit that makes loans to startups and organizations promoting revitalization in underserved communities in Western Pennsylvania.

Another nonprofit, the Richard King Mellon Foundation, had suggested Bridgeway explore ways to connect local makers to the economic development community, said Adam Kenney, CBA's director. The foundation provided $185,000 to back the effort to grow the maker movement in Pittsburgh.

Then last May, the Hillman Foundation granted Bridgeway another $360,000 over three years to formalize the accelerator, with the funds paying for a full-time staff member and for grants to help emerging craft businesses.

Growing reach Since its launch two years ago, the Craft Business Accelerator has helped pave the way for 17 business transactions worth more than $200,000 in total for the makers involved, Mr. Kenney said.

The deals ranged in value from $570 to $40,000 -- small amounts when compared to the millions of dollars that might be raised by tech startups but still enough to make a difference.

And the project's reach is growing. The accelerator has a pipeline of 33 "opportunities" that could be worth more than $500,000 in revenue for maker businesses, he said.

For Bones and All, which employs two people in addition to its founders, the help has been appreciated.

"We are at a place where having big projects like those come through allows us to know there's income coming in and lets us invest in manpower and equipment," said Mr. Kruszynski, 32, who left a career in graphic communication design with retailer American Eagle Outfitters several years ago to pursue his craft full time.

Until last April, the woodworking studio was located in 7800 Susquehanna -- a former Westinghouse Electric factory that Bridgeway owns and redeveloped into working space for small trades and artisan businesses. Bones and All's business outgrew that space and moved to another location in Homewood.

The work for Trek and Casellula led to other projects.

The owners of the City of Asylum building asked Bones and All to refinish bookcases and other pieces of reclaimed wood in the space that also houses a bookstore and performance space.

Back on the South Side, the Brew House Association -- which provides support to artists who live and work at the Brew House Loft -- noticed the tables that Bones and All designed for the lobby and commissioned the firm to build conference tables, end tables and privacy booths in the Brew House workspaces.

Monmade.org The CBA focuses on artisans who make a range of goods, including signage, apartment lighting, restaurant tableware and fabrics used in wallcoverings or pillows.

Mr. Kenney characterized the accelerator as a "tool" that forges conversations between makers and businesses. "What I do is a lot of informal technical assistance," he said.

Now, to provide a place where makers can get wide exposure among consumers and developers, the accelerator is rolling out a website -- Monmade.org.

Monmade aims to be "a platform to aggregate all these craft businesses in one place," Mr. Kenney said.

Makers won't sell directly on the Monmade site, he said, but buyers and sellers who connect there can meet and talk about potential deals.

To date, about 80 craft businesses and maker enterprises have signed on or are in the process of joining the site, including glass and fiber artists, a ceramics housewares business and two local fashion designers -- Jazmin Jackson and Nisha Blackwell.

Both women have been awarded $1,000 grants from the CBA to develop products to display on Monmade.

Ms. Jackson, 31, who designs and sews women's clothing, home goods and accessories at her Wilkinsburg studio and at the TechShop, East Liberty, will use her grant for supplies to create sample designs that could be used for wallpaper and pillows.

She's also designing oversize coats to feature on the Monmade site under her brand name, Jazmeen.

Her custom goods are priced from $250 to $550 apiece. With more exposure, she's optimistic sales can grow.

"I'm excited to tap into the market of developers who can put my designs on textiles," she said. "And they would purchase in bulk, which would obviously help me."

Ms. Blackwell, 30, whose Homewood-based company Knotzland makes custom-order bow ties from repurposed and sustainable materials, is using her grant to study expansion of her tie production or perhaps add another product to her brand. Her ties sell for an average of $60.

She works at Radiant Hall, an artists' space at 7800 Susquehanna where she connected with Mr. Kenney and the Craft Business Accelerator.

"Early on, Adam knew he wanted to incorporate Knotzland and other local makers in the CBA," Ms. Blackwell said. "It's a really good relationship builder."

For Modesto Studios in Wilkinsburg, connecting with the accelerator last fall has resulted in a couple of jobs and it expects even more referrals after the Monmade site launches.

Modesto specializes in print and graphic design and has created customized props and signage for locally filmed movies and television series including "The Outsiders," "Downward Dog" and "American Pastoral."

In December, Mr. Kenney connected Modesto with the National Aviary on the North Side, which wanted items to sell in its gift shop during the holidays.

Modesto created a design that included the aviary's logo and put it on a couple hundred pint glass and metal key chains that doubled as bottle openers.

"That was only about three weeks before Christmas, but we put it together," said Brad Towell, who owns and operates the firm with his wife, Stephanie Towell.

Modesto recently met with Ms. Jackson to discuss the possibility of the studio producing packaging, boxes or gift wrap based on her original designs.

"The CBA is all about brainstorming," Mr. Towell said.

An aggressive national push Once the Monmade site is fully operational later this year, "We will get much more aggressive regionally and nationally" in promoting the accelerator, Mr. Kenney said.

One way it's trying to raise its profile among developers is through the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority, which is assisting the accelerator in making connections, said Jennifer Wilhelm, the URA's manager of innovation and entrepreneurship.

She called the CBA "inspiring ... and pretty impressive in terms of strategy around helping coordinate [artisans] who have been doing their own thing and helping them find new business and outlets for their craft."

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