A decade ago, when Jenna Herbut and her brother Chandler launched the first Make It show at Vancouver’s Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre, it was a cool new twist on the old holiday craft fair, complete with a DJ and bar. By the next year, the event had leaped to the bigger Croatian Cultural Centre, and now it’s become a biannual event at the PNE Forum; now a beer garden and food trucks are added to the mix, drawing about 15,000 shoppers, displaying the work of well over 200 artists, and ranking as one of the biggest craft fairs in the country. Herbut has also opened the Conscious Lab in Gastown, a red-brick-walled heritage studio aimed at self-development, workshops, and bringing creative entrepreneurs together.
Along the way, Herbut has not only discovered what it takes to grow a business, but watched dozens of her “Makies” (her pet name for her vendors) successfully turn a creative hobby into a full-time enterprise.
“I’ve seen so many makers over the years be able to quit their job—or the husband starts working for the wife,” she tells the Straight over the phone from Edmonton, where she’s just staged a Make It holiday market.
At the same time, Herbut has noticed that, despite the growing number of self-employed artisans and crafters out there, there’s a dearth of info about how to develop their businesses. Which brings us to her latest project, a new book called Make It Happen.
“I’ve realized we need to teach them business skills,” she says, referring to the fast-reading, down-to-earth pep talk subtitled The Creative Entrepreneur’s Guide to Transforming Your Dreams Into Reality. “I need to inspire people about their mindsets and beliefs.”
So much of the mentality she faced, she says, was the idea of the “starving artist”—a societal attitude that creative people can’t make a decent living—although she sees that changing with self-starting millennials.
“What I’ve noticed is it’s not necessarily just the product, but it’s the belief system around what they can do—especially when it comes to money. So many entrepreneurs stand in their own way,” she explains. “With Make It, I’ve been able to help them harness what they’ve naturally got and allow them to get better.”
Part of her success, she admits, undoubtedly stems from what she’s “naturally got”.
Herbut traces her entrepreneurial bent back to elementary school in Edmonton, where she went from hawking pom-pommed bookmarks to neighbours to selling refreshments at a nearby golf course’s 14th hole. By her early teens, she was earning extra cash by selling homemade jewellery at local boutiques. Later, in 2004, while she was a business student at the University of Alberta, she created a line of accessories called Booty Beltz as a marketing project. Working in her parents’ basement, she made belts by sewing buckles and beads onto vintage scarves, eventually selling them at 120 stores across Canada, the United States, and Japan.
Getting to know her fellow Makies, Herbut’s realized over the years that many of them have this kind of common experience. “So many of them say, ‘Definitely, I had something going as a kid,’ ” she says. “And for me, I just loved making things so much.”
But she also loved selling directly to the client, as she could at craft fairs. And that’s what made her realize they needed a serious marketing makeover to reach people her age (at that time, her mid-20s). The process of launching, and then expanding, Make It is detailed in her book. She even opens up about the business split with her brother (who still runs the retro-style T-shirt line Ole Originals), when they couldn’t agree on a big expansion to Toronto.
Looking back at the 10-year growth of Make It, Herbut reflects, “It’s not just looking at the bottom line. It’s also looking at the environmental effects. It’s not just about making money. We genuinely care about people.
“It takes on a life of its own,” she says of the market. “You birth this business and it’s out in the world, and at first you’re doing everything for it and at first it doesn’t have its own heartbeat. Then it gets its own heartbeat and personality. The responsibility of the entrepreneur is that this is like a baby, and they’re feeding it right and getting it what it needs. And you have to adapt.”
Much of the advice in Herbut’s Make It Happen is about the importance of personal development and positive attitude to growing a business. She offers advice on everything from defining your vision to fuelling your inspiration and starting before you feel 100 percent ready.
In the process of writing the book, she says, she had an open dialogue via Facebook, where she would throw out questions she was pondering. “At one point I said, ‘What is getting in the way of you making it?’ and half said fear of success and half said fear of failure. That was very telling.”
The fear of success, she explains, makes people afraid they won’t be able to cope with, say, increased orders or mounting pressures. “Even with this book I was like, ‘If this book really takes off how am I going to make it?’ ” she says.
Herbut tries to walk readers through self-doubt. Along the way, she shares advice from Make It vendors, including local success stories like East Van Light. She describes Vancouverite Dan Emery’s eureka moment, holding a vintage bulb in one hand and a piece of wood in the other, plus his struggles with things like price structure and such demand that he could leave his corporate job and make his lighting full-time.
“I think a lot of it is personality profiling,” Herbut says, returning to her own approach. “For instance, I’m not an anal person at all—I kind of go with the flow and I’m not super detail-oriented. But I’ve been able to find people who are super organized. My strength is marketing and the big picture.”
For aspiring creatives out there, Make It Happen suggests a special mix of hard work, self-awareness, and faith in your abilities. But what it doesn’t do is prescribe a fix-all formula for the same kind of creatively and consciously inspired success Herbut has seen.
“It looks so easy from outside,” observes Herbut, who will be selling signed copies of her book at the upcoming Make It Vancouver. “But there’s no magic solution, and in that way it’s no different from diets and exercise.”