Building something meaningful

Reflecting on the first year of Folkstore

Folkstore is an online listing service and community for artists, makers, and creative professionals focused on physical location. The project is still in the early stages and growing more each day. I wrote this post as a reflection on the first year of its life and the moments leading up to the initial idea.

A shifting mindset

I walked up to the table for our daily meeting with the team. We usually used the time to discuss plans for the following week—what was going to be sent out to customers, what deals we were running, etc., and then every here and there we’d get a business update. Everyone gathered around and a coworker gave an exhilarating update for the previous day’s results. “Yesterday alone we sold over 86,000 products!” Most people were happy for obvious reasons—we made a ton of money which validated our work and got us closer to a big bonus.

Following the meeting, a thought arose: does the world need 86,000 more articles of clothing? That thought ran through my mind regularly and it often came back up anytime similar stats were shared. Aside from contributing to the environmental impact of fashion and retail, the thought of doing something meaningful with my life weighed heavily on me. This eventually snowballed into existential questions pondering my purpose in the universe and so on..

Eventually I had decided that I’d like to do something more with my life. I wasn’t sure what exactly but the decision was made. It didn’t need to be a life-changing event either. Despite my almost-existential-crisis, I enjoyed my job, my coworkers, and my paycheck and was in no rush to leave any of that behind.

No idea is original

Around the time of the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home orders, the idea of doing something meaningful grew larger in my mind. Especially in the beginning when everyone found out who the real “essential” workers of the world were. Not only did I feel a sense of missing purpose but I was also reminded that the world didn’t find any value in my work aside from contributing to the economy.

In all the chaos of the initial outbreak and changing world, there was also a really calm, powerful, and connecting energy. People were putting aside their differences to help one another. For the first time in at least 4 years or so, it seemed like politics were off the table and people were ready to stand together to fight a common enemy. This, of course, didn’t last forever but, it was magical.

In that time I saw many initiatives, organizations, and movements focused on helping people. One day I was scrolling through Instagram (as one does in a pandemic) and I came across a person that created a quick website to show off the businesses in their neighborhood. The idea was to promote them and hopefully get them more customers—thus keeping them afloat in a declining economy. Brilliant. Even if it was on a really small scale and only used by a few people, the idea of using your skills, essential or not, to make something useful for your community is admirable in my opinion.

Around the time of this discovery, I was focused on becoming a better web developer by learning new technologies that were commonplace in the modern web. I planned to build a test project using the new technologies to learn and create something portfolio-worthy. Eventually, the idea of promoting businesses connected with this plan and that all collided with my desire to create something meaningful. In a short amount of time I had created the first prototype for Folkstore.

Folkstore

The initial state of Folkstore was pretty simple. It was a one-page site that included a couple freelancers (friends of mine) in the Duluth area with some information about them and a headline speaking to “small businesses and freelancers”. I’m a big idea person so I had already planned to create something nationwide but starting locally made the most sense. I knew people in the area that could help raise awareness and I could validate it on a small scale before introducing it to a large amount of people.

The project started to get a little traction and at around 10 signups I made a switch. I had spent a little time really focusing on the target audience and who I wanted to set out to help—eventually landing on artists, makers, and creative professionals. Being a life-long artist and creative professional myself, I understood the importance of a strong creative community and the help creatives needed as a whole. At this point it felt like things were really coming together.

Community is everything

Unfortunately, “community” has become the latest buzzword in marketing and lost a bit of meaning along the way. Regardless, community is powerful. It’s everything.

I learned a lot about what community really means in this first year of running Folkstore. It’s not just some button you can turn on. It’s not a Facebook group or a Discord. It’s not a branded hashtag and social campaign. And it’s not a metric you can put numbers to in a spreadsheet. It really comes down to being human and understanding the role communities play in other humans’ lives.

People, like you and me, find community in all sorts of places and around all sorts of things. Communities form around physical locations and neighborhoods, sports teams, movies and shows, video games, music, lifestyles, hobbies, and general interests among other things. The value comes in the connections made, the feeling of having people on your side, a sense of belonging, the perks, and the status associated.

“The value comes in the connections made, the feeling of having people on your side, a sense of belonging, the perks, and the status associated.”

For Folkstore to work, and be meaningful, community has to be the core focus. I understood that early on and even more-so now. But how does one go about building a community that effectively meets the goals described earlier?

Creating value

The overall goal for Folkstore, at the moment of writing this, is to provide our members with as much value as possible. Joining Folkstore needs to mean something. It can’t be another one of those services you see on Product Hunt, sign up for, and forget about. There has to be a desire to join and be present and that all comes from the value the community provides.

In the beginning, this was just a simple webpage. People were required to email me if they wanted to be listed and once it happened, that was it. End of value. Over the past year, however, I’ve been laser-focused on building in as much value as I can.

One of the first big improvements on the product side was a signup form. Once someone signed up, they were manually added to the site and an Instagram post was made in their honor. The real magic here was the Instagram post. The idea is to promote them and hopefully in return, they’ll share the post to their story to promote Folkstore. If you’re providing something useful to your members, you’ll also find a little value coming back your way. It’s a loop—and it’s powerful. But the loop has to start somewhere and it starts with Folkstore providing something useful up front. It keeps us honest and focused on delivering something useful.

“If you’re providing something useful to your members, you’ll also find a little value coming back your way. It’s a loop—and it’s powerful.”

While a post to announce a new signup is great, I knew we could provide more in the social space. The first, obvious, solution was a branded hashtag the members could use for a repost on our feed. There’s a reason so many brands do this and it all comes back to that loop—there needs to be value on both ends for it to work. In this case, the members get a repost and increased engagement and Folkstore gets UGC (user-generated content) to fill up the feed.

A repost every week or every other week didn’t seem like enough, though. Especially if this is going to scale to 100, 1000, or even more people. With each added member, the chances for a repost dwindle. Enter story reposts! Stories are perfect for reposting content quick. They don’t require a caption and people don’t seem to be bothered by large amounts of content in them. So each day started to carve out a little bit of time to run through our feed and repost any new creative work posted by our members. Some people may make the story a few times a week if they’re posting enough.

After committing a considerable amount of time to the social media strategy, I knew it was time to focus on the product again. I had a lot of big ideas but I couldn’t implement any of them until members could make their own accounts and do things on their own. Over a few months I learned everything I could about Google Firebase, authentication, databases, API calls, and more. Eventually, after A LOT of failures, I had successfully set up user authentication, a database, and file storage for our members. They now had the ability to log in, edit their listing, and log out as they wished.

Once the product was in a good place again, I decided to return to social media to strengthen the community and let the signups occur naturally. I probably asked myself the same question 1000 times: how can I add more value? It seemed like I was doing all I could do to help our members from a social media standpoint.

On a typical Saturday-morning drive with Jess (fiancee) the and kids up the North Shore, we started ideating on social media ideas. Within 20 minutes we had the idea for posts to share each member in a specific category and a mini series of interviews. As I’ve learned more than a few times in the past year, if you’re stuck, ask your significant other.

All caught up

About one year ago, when I started Folkstore I made a promise to myself: give this project 1 year before you can quit—and not just any year, it’s got to be a good year filled with hard work and dedication. “Don’t half-ass it” as my dad would say. I had spent so much of my adult life hopping from one idea to the next and I never really gave anything the time it really deserved. This promise was less about me and more about giving Folkstore a real chance to become something wonderful.

As I near the year mark, I’m proud to say I’m planning to stick it out for another year. And hopefully, a few more after that.

Folkstore has given my life a bit of purpose and helped a bunch of really great people along the way. I can’t wait to see where we can take it from here :)