Leah Kramer, founder of Craftster.org, doesn’t walk around wearing a crown, but you can bet if she did, it would be one fantabulous crown, involving some ingenious use of clay, pipe cleaners, paper towel rolls, felt, and glitter. Leah also helps runs a real-world store, Magpie, and recently put out The Craftster Guide to Nifty, Thrifty, and Kitschy Crafts.

LAB: In a recent interview with The Sampler, you were asked what you wanted most, and your response was… minions! to help you with all your work. I’m curious: have you enlisted any minions yet?

LK: Well, I’m unbelievably lucky— and have been for a while now— to have a team of about 25 amazing volunteer moderators helping out on Craftster. Since the website is a totally open forum with over 76,000 registered members, there’s always so much to do just to keep all the content under control. The moderators are total lifesavers. I’m still praying for the day to come when I can hire some people to take lots of other kinds work off my plate so I can focus more on the aspects I love and have to neglect, but it will come some day.

p(question).The site has, what, 75,000+ members now? What have been some of the difficulties you’ve faced in scaling the site up to its current size?

The site has over 76,000 members and it’s expanding by a couple thousand every month. As easy as Craftster was to start, the hardest thing has been dealing with the scaling issues. Even though I’m a programmer, I’d never had to deal with the kind of technical issues that come with rapid growth. I had no idea how large it would become, and even if I could have anticipated it, I wouldn’t have known how to handle it. I’ve had to learn all of that as I go along. And then the other difficulty with the size of Craftster is the sheer number of people posting content all the time— it’s a huge challenge to keep it all organized and useful. This is sort of like a microcosm of the internet in general, where there’s just so much information and it’s hard to organize it in an organic way. But this is a challenge that I actually really love.

So, besides keeping Craftster running smoothly, running a bricks ‘n’ mortar store, doing various crafty projects, and writing books, what do you do with all the oodles of spare time left on your hands?

What is this so-called “spare time” you speak of? You’ll have to tell me more about it… no, really, I do get an occasional slice of free time here and there. I like to read graphic novels. Recently I’ve been reading the series Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan, and I just read Chicken with Plums by Marjane Satrapi. I also rent TV series like Six Feet Under and Nip / Tuck and I devour the whole series as quickly as possible because I have no self-control and then I feel sad because they’re over and I didn’t stretch it out longer.

Once the site started pulling some massive traffic, how did you handle bandwidth charges? Donations? Bake sales & carwashes?

Yeah… It was a complete surprise to me that you have to pay for bandwidth at a certain point if your website gets lots of traffic. I’d never encountered that before. At first I was adamantly opposed to showing ads on Craftster. Banner ads just left such a bad taste in my mouth whenever I would see them on other sites and I didn’t want Craftster to be seen as some sort of money-making venture. It was just a hobby and it was supposed to be a service for the good of the crafting world. So my first solution was to put up one of those “donate now” buttons and that helped for a little while. But then it became clear that sporadic donations weren’t going to cover it. So I decided to try Google AdSense text ads since they are nice and subtle with no crazy flashing “punch the monkey” going on and I liked that they actually showed ads that were often relevant to the content of the site. I was extremely apologetic about it at the time and I was afraid of a big backlash but luckily I didn’t get any complaints. I then moved up to offering banner ads but rather than joining a network that would show the aforementioned “punch the monkey” ads I decided to sell banners directly to companies related to crafts and to this day I still manage that whole process myself. I also have a system in place where people can become a “Friend of Craftster” for $12/year but it turns out that it’s an extremely small percentage of people who subscribe.

Now, you also run an actual real-life physical store (on planet Earth), called Magpie. Which do you find takes more of your time & resources, Craftster or Magpie? Have you ever been tempted to give up one?

Man… I can only imagine the foot traffic problems if it were not on Earth! We have a hard enough time getting people to notice us since we’re just a smidge off the beaten path in a great little neighborhood called Davis Square in Somerville, Mass. Luckily word of mouth has done wonders for us. As for the time involved in Magpie, I’m lucky in that there are 5 owners altogether. We all have our “day jobs” of one sort or another and then between employees and splitting the weekend shifts between us owners, we cover all the store shifts. But more importantly for all of the non-shift-covering work, we all split that so it’s not too much work for me or any of us partners. And if one of us having a particularly busy spell in life, we can lean on others to put in a little more work. This is what I rely on when it all feels like too much. Having that many partners decreases the chances of us making any real profit from Magpie but it’s not our first and foremost goal. Our goal is really just to run a great store where you can find all kinds of amazing handmade goods and not have to shop at the mall for mass-produced gifts.

Sounds like some very good goals. I have to ask— has there ever been an Era of Darkness for your DIY spirit— like maybe a time when you were tempted to toss out the glue gun and go get a boring temp job?

Oh man… I do have brief flashes of that from time to time, but there are so many things that I love about all the things that I do. Besides the fact that it’s all related to crafting in some way, I also really enjoy the entrepreneurial side of it all, which has actually been a total shock to discover. I don’t consider myself someone with dollar signs in my eyes who’s looking to make a buck in any way possible but instead I really enjoy— with Magpie and Craftster— that I can work my mind in a strategically business-minded kind of way and yet do some good at the same time. It’s an unbelievable amount of work and sometimes I do feel like scrapping it all and getting some totally low-stress job somewhere, but then I feel like if I did that, then I’d be consumed with ideas for some other crazy project of my own, and I’d be plagued by wishing I was doing that instead.

Sounds like you know yourself well enough to know that you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. I think that kind of passion is powerful, although it can also be a source of stress, especially when it comes time to find funding for projects. What was the main source of your start-up funds? Did you smash the ol’ piggy bank, work a day job, take out a loan, auction tchotchke on ebay, win a beauty contest, pass GO and collect 200?

Sadly it’s not a very interesting or entrepreneurial tale. When I decided to leave my full time programming job to run Craftster full-time, it was really a decision born out of necessity. It was just way too much work to handle Craftster and a full-time job. So I had to come up with a way to make it work financially, and I had a plan that I thought would work. It took way longer than I thought to get things working financially, and I went through all of my own savings in the process, and moved on to phase 2 which was to be totally broke and lean on my husband for several months of financial support. My husband is gainfully employed as the Art Director at a children’s media company. I’m very appreciative to have had his financial support. And he’s a great illustrator and designer, which comes in handy for things like designing Craftster swag and so forth.

What would be your advice to the veteran Craftster To The Stars, ready to go full-time and start paying the billz with the crafty skillz: 1) the “quit your day job, pour your heart into it, and chase your dreams” method? or, 2) the “keep your job, do some moonlighting, and make sure the safety net is in place before climbing the Trapeze of Self-Employment” method?

I often get asked this question in regards to giving advice to people who want to make and sell their crafts for a living. I think it’s really important to dip your toe into the world you think you want to be in before you jump in. First of all, you may not actually like doing it full time. Before Craftster came along I daydreamed about making and selling my crafts for a living and even did all kinds of projections about the financial viability of this. But then I took a hard look at how happy or unhappy I was when I was on a big crafting binge getting ready for a craft fair or making an order for store. I realized that it would actually drive me kind of crazy to spend hours making the same thing over and over and I preferred to just craft in occasional short bursts. So I think you need to test out how much you would really enjoy doing it 40+ hours per week. Perhaps take a week of vacation from your job and do nothing but crank out copies of crafts you sell. And then there’s of course the issue of whether it would work out financially which you really just have to run the numbers to see. You have to be sure to factor in covering your own health insurance and be aware that you’re going to be responsible for all kinds of bookkeeping and taxes and so forth that you may never have had to do as a part of your regular job. But I really do encourage everyone to find a way to test it out and see if it would work. Luckily, these days, it’s not hard to start your own web shop, and with sites like Etsy.com and eBay, you can easily try selling your crafts.

Are there any resources you’d recommend for DIY start-ups?

There’s a great online community called The Switchboards [theswitchboards.com] which is all about helping one another with craft-related business ventures. It seems to be the go-to place for this. Before going full-time with Craftster, I also took a course at my local Adult Ed center about starting your own business, which was extremely helpful. And another great resource: visit the website of your local Small Business Administration (SBA) branch and see what kinds of classes or counseling they offer or what other local organizations that can refer you to. This is often free or very inexpensive.

What’s a typical day like at the Craftster Castle? Do you have any ponies on the grounds? How about gold-plated automagical server racks guarded by fire-breathing dragons?

It’s pretty glamorous— let me tell you… I get up at 8:30am every day and fill my coffee cup and walk downstairs to my little office… aka the third bedroom in my three-bedroom apartment. I open up my trusty PowerBook and I’m magically transported to the land of Craftster with a splash of Magpie and Bazaar Bizarre wrangling when I need a break from Craftster stuff. Around 6:00pm I take a break from my work and realize that I really should change out of what I woke up in lest my husband think I’ve been in bed all day. Sounds enviable, eh? It’s funny because before I started working for myself, I imagined this blissful existence where I’d have the flexibility to pop over to my favorite thrift store or meet friends for lunch in the middle of the day on any week day. Instead I work harder and longer hours than I ever did at any job— but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The server-protecting dragons— complete with their homemade chainmaille made of woven-together discarded soda can tabs— reside in Virginia where my dedicated server is hosted. If only I could get a little IT support from them while they’re there….

The phrase “craftster” is now in everyday urban use; in fact, it’s listed as a word on urbandictionary.com:

A hip crafter. Not to be confused with decidedly uncool, grannyish crafters. Also the current title of a popular blog/forum for posting of hip craft projects (craftster.org). She knit this really cool iPod case for me, she’s a total craftster.

It seems the term has started to take on a life of its own.

Well, I’ve always thought that I couldn’t possibly have been the first and only person to have come up with that term, so I definitely don’t feel any ownership to it when I see it used elsewhere. And I still wonder, when I see it, if the person using it got it from my website, or if they were clever and just coined it on the fly. I know that there are people who aren’t familiar with Craftster.org. I do love that it’s in the Urban Dictionary, though. Jenny Hart from Sublime Stitching made that entry, which is even cooler. What’s next? Perhaps I’ll wake up and find out that someone has written a Wikipedia entry for Craftster….

Craftster.org has become the poster child for the online crafting movement. Which has been going strong for the last few years. A few pundits say it’s a trend that’s bound to fade. What are your thoughts on that?

Craftster has only been in existence for 3 years. But it’s a good question that you raise. I certainly don’t want it to fade out because I enjoy the challenge of keeping Craftster going. I have lots of new features in the works which will keep the ever-growing content managed so it’s always easy to get to and always easy to find crafty inspiration. So as long as I can do some great innovating in that area and as long as crafting itself doesn’t fade in popularity, it seems to me that it might continue to thrive. People sometimes ask if the popularity of this new kind of alternative crafting will die out. I’d like to think it won’t, and I have a theory to back this up. One of the reasons why I think crafting has become so popular with people who are younger (or are just non-traditionalists) is that the internet has brought so many really truly hip and original craft ideas to the forefront. People have always accepted that you can express your creativity in ways like writing, music, art, etc. Now people are able to see that crafting can be a truly cool and limitless form of self-expression. It doesn’t just conjure up images of “geese in bonnets” and “home sweet home” plaques anymore. I don’t see there being a step backwards from this new way of thinking.

Good point. I think it’s here to stay, and Amen to that. Now, the Craftster slogan is “No tea cozies without irony.” There seems to be two different camps of craftsters: those who savor the irony of doing kistchy, crafty projects (and maybe have a messier, grungier punk aesthetic), and those who sincerely enjoy crafts, such as knitting, stitching, and sewing (and who are serious about making high-quality, well-made stuff)… and then, of course, those in between. Where would you say you fall on the spectrum between those two camps? Do you think there’s any danger (not like FIRE! THE BUILDING IS BURNING DOWN! danger, but more like metaphorical danger) of crafting without any sense of irony?

On Craftster, there are people who love crafts that are kitschy or irreverent, and there are people who post more traditional craft projects, and there’s everything in between. One of the things I love about Craftster is that there’s a genuine outpouring of praise for all of these different styles. And there’s so much to be inspired by, even if the original project posted is not your taste at all. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen an idea that thematically didn’t speak to me, but where the underlying technique brought on a flood of new ideas for me. When I chose the name Craftster and came up with the tagline, I wanted to set a certain tone, and I envisioned the participants would be a specific kind of crafter,but I’m so happy that all kinds of crafters have flocked to the site.

Any projects coming down the pipe?

I’m batting the idea around for some sort of Craftster-CON event where people can travel to meet fellow Craftsters, learn new techniques, try out interesting crafting products and tools, meet celebrities who knit— a list of which can be found here: worldknit.com/celebrityknitters.html. “Watch Russell Crowe knit!” (Just kidding about that part!) But then again, if I could get Rosey Grier to come… hmm. Other than that, I’m spending as many slices of time as I can working on programming new features for Craftster. I just love the wide-open collaborative aspect of the internet that you see at places like Wists.com, Flickr, and Wikipedia. And I’m working on some new ideas that will be geared specifically for Craftsters to be able to share ideas in more interesting ways.

If you had a choice between a cloning machine, your own private ninja bodyguard, a complete bound set of Spinnerin knitting catalogs from 1955–1968, or a thrift-shopping robot drone that would spend all day finding all kinds of sweet kitschy stuff for you, which would you pick?

Oh wow—I’m salivating at the idea of the thrift-shopping drone but I’ll have go with the cloning machine. Hands down. If I could clone a dozen of me to do all the things I want to do with Craftster, there’d be a pair of scissors and a bottle of glue in the hands of every man, woman and child on this planet. And of course one clone would comb thrift stores for me.

Sounds good. Okay. Thanks for enduring all our nosy questions, Leah. Any final words to all the good folks out there?

Live long and be crafty.