Vikings Blade describes itself as a collection of “real blacksmiths and artisans” on a singular mission to create quality old fashioned men’s shaving equipment. The Melbourne-based company has been doing that successfully, albeit anonymously, for more than three decades as a supplier to bigger and better known brands, but recently the Vikings Blade brand has moved out of obscurity.
In 2015, the company started to sell its niche branded products online and found almost instant success, so much so, that now it is fending off companies cloning its signature safety razor.
The catalyst for the emergence of Vikings Blade, which now has a $3 million shopfront within a year of going live, is the opportunity created by online e-commerce. Reborn in 1985 as a supplier of products for bigger and better known brands, Vikings Blade decided to sell its own branded product through Amazon in 2015. Now, its signature safety razor, “The Chieftain”, is the number-one selling razor on Amazon for a non-major-brand name, with over 1500 largely glowing online reviews.
"We are not here to revolutionise the shaving industry like other younger brands are aiming to do these days,” says Julian Vue, Vikings Blade founder. “We are here to revive the traditional wet-shaving tools our grandfathers used in the past, with good old-fashioned customer service where you get to communicate directly with the business owner.”
Vikings Blade is no isolated example. Artisans the world over have discovered e-commerce, overcoming the disadvantage of small scale and remoteness from the market to help take their products to the world.
Not all artisans need their own websites, however, because there is now a range of online platforms where they can set up shop. First there was eBay, where artisans carved out their own niche in one of the world’s largest public online marketplaces. Now, the online world has come to the artisans, purpose-built platforms allowing them to sell globally.
Brooklyn-based Etsy has grown so big it listed on the US NASDAQ share market in 2015 in a float that valued the company at US$1.8 billion. At its core, Etsy is a marketplace for people to make, sell and buy handcrafted goods. Bigger rival Amazon, realising Etsy was onto something, joined forces with US domestic icon Martha Stewart to challenge Etsy with its Amazon Handmade platform, which already boasts 10,000 vendors from 60 countries selling 300,000 unique items.
I did some research and found that for the food I wanted to buy, the shopping experience wasn’t what you’d expect from e-commerce.
While Etsy and Amazon Handmade are now global giants, there’s still opportunity for handmade marketplaces to be disrupted. On a much smaller scale, Sydney based Omeio is bringing the produce of local artisans to the wider public through an online platform. Omeio began three years ago as the creation of chef Nikolas Giourgas and his partner Klara Takas, and while it is an e-commerce site – with all the potential for scaling up that entails – the concept is still to remain small, local, and true to its artisanal origins.
“I knew some of the artisan food makers because I was working in a kitchen as a chef and I was also looking for small amounts of organic produce for my weekly groceries at home,” says Giourgas. “I did some research and found that for the food I wanted to buy, the shopping experience wasn’t what you’d expect from e-commerce. I was used to shopping for fashion, for example, where the sites are highly developed. We looked at Omeio as a way of modernising the shopping experience for artisanal food and tried to create something that delivered the buying experience we ourselves would expect.”
Most of the artisans who sell through Omeio only sell through market stalls, and the site’s policy is to have only one product per category. Beginning with 11 suppliers, they now have 23, and have moved from next-day to same-day delivery within the Sydney metropolitan area, delivering to the CBD by motorcycle and bicycle courier.
Scaling up has also set the business on the path to bricks and mortar, with plans to open two retail outlets in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
“When we started, suppliers were stocking the product and we were picking up from them and doing next-day delivery,” says Giourgas. “When business picked up, which it did quite rapidly, we had to organise a small storage area at home. Then as we developed and got bigger, we started looking for a warehouse. We then decided if we were going to rent a warehouse we might as well open a retail outlet.”
Omeio’s commitment to the basic integrity of its produce means Giourgas has no ambition to create a megasite to take on the world. While it uses the best tools e-commerce has to offer, Omeio’s growth is constrained by its principles. For Giourgas, this presents no conflict ‑ but it does highlight the contradiction Etsy has grappled with since it joined the corporate world.
Etsy started out wanting to deliver for both buyer and sellers, creating what it described as “sustainable growth.” It is certified as “B Corporation,’ which meets social and environmental standards. The company floated in 2015 on a surge of goodwill coupled with estimates that the world spends US$70 billion a year on handmade crafts. Since then, Etsy’s share price has plunged by 75 per cent, largely because the newest stakeholders – the investors – need it to grow faster.
For artisans, however, Etsy is the way to get their work to the world. The site’s revenues are up more than 20 per cent in the past year, with gross sales set to exceed US$2.5 billion. Its 1.7 million active sellers include two leather workers from Wollongong, Joram Salisbury and Cameron Paterson, who won Etsy’s award for handmade goods only 18 months after extending their hobby into a business.
So far, the lesson is that online selling is good for producers and buyers, not investors. In a world where things are often skewed the other way, perhaps that is no bad thing.