When Julie Richarme started selling handmade jewelry on Etsy, she looked for an online community for people in Tampa Bay who ran shops on the e-commerce website, too.
With so many craft shows in the Tampa Bay area, Richarme said, she thought she'd find an active group. But when she didn't, she decided to start her own.
In the last two years the Tampa Bay Etsy Crew has grown into an online community of crafters forging virtual business connections and face-to-face friendships.
More than 200 people representing hundreds of shops are part of the Tampa Etsy group on Meetup.com, a site where people can connect with others in their area who share similar interests. In Tampa Bay, there are meetup groups for everything from business networking to surfing.
Richarme, 34, started the group for area Etsy members to trade advice and compare notes. She said many of the members work from home and have been able to make friends in the same situation. It's also helped some of them bolster business.
Marita Murphy of Brandon came to a few meetups last year. She opened The Whimsical Studio, selling crochet and needlecraft items, in January 2010. Murphy, 57, finds motivation in meeting others who do what she does.
"In that year, I've seen a big turn-around in my business," she said. "It's helped me be more confident."
Murphy, a programmer who works on her shop evenings and weekends, has already sold more in the first half of July than she sold the entire month of July last year, she said.
The group meets regularly during the first week of the month, and at three or four larger events throughout the year. They've held meetups at Tampa Upcycle in Ybor City, and they staged the Etsy Craft Party 2013 last month at the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club. They've brought on more people to lead the group, Richarme said, and it continues to grow.
Etsy launched in 2005 as a place for people to sell handmade and vintage items and craft supplies. The site has more than 900,000 active shops and 25 million members, according to stats on the Etsy website.
Shop owners can connect through the Etsy site. That's how Richarme, of Clearwater, first started the Tampa Bay Etsy Crew in April 2011. It began as a community page on Etsy for people in Tampa Bay. She searched on the site for other people in the area with shops, and sent them invitations to join the group.
She soon asked her friend in Valrico, KC Bird, to help her run the group. They moved it to Facebook so members could interact more easily and decided to hold their first in-person event at International Plaza.
"I think eight of us came out," Richarme said. "It was really small, but it was a lot of fun and everyone was really into it."
Jen Campbell of Tampa joined the group about a year ago. She runs the shop Lola's Handcrafted, selling homemade products like soaps, candles and cosmetics.
"I was looking for other people who were just as passionate about something as I was, their business, their creations, things they made with their hands," Campbell said. "It got to be where I was the only person I knew around me that was doing something like that."
KC Bird was her first sale soon after joining the group, said Campbell, 25. Since then she's had about 240 sales on Etsy, plus sales at live events. She doesn't yet sell enough to say she makes a living from it, but her business has grown a lot in the past year.
Madison Bittman of New Tampa joined to meet other work-from-home moms. "I've made quite a handful of friends," said Bittman, 22. "I've diversified my own shop by talking to people and seeing what they like."
She sells handmade accessories like hair bows and bow ties in her shop RockabillyRevolt. Through the online group, she's learned about more events where she can sell her items and meet more people in person.
Online, members post articles they think might help others in the group, discuss social media marketing strategies, or share tips on to handle finances or the best ways to ship to customers.
"This has created a place where people can talk online until they feel comfortable, and make online friendships, and get together outside of that," Richarme said.
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2453.