Made By Project: Entrepreneurs and data central to solving Memphis makers’ challenges

New programs and initiatives coming to Memphis will bolster the growing population of makers and artisans. 

EPIcenter and Little Bird Innovation have announced the first recommendations from a development plan with the focus is on growing and strengthening local maker businesses.

Data from the Made By Project was used in forming the plan. It comes from “first of its kind” research of over 300 makers, artisans and micro-manufacturers in the greater Memphis area.

The project was launched for the benefit of manufacturers who have physical goods for sale, such as food, apparel or crafted items.

“Made By is a first-of-its-kind initiative to understand the lives and livelihoods of Memphis-area makers, artisans and small-scale manufacturers, with the goal of developing a multi-year plan that supports and grows this group of local business owners,” said Nicole Heckman, co-founder of Memphis-based Little Bird Innovation and the Made By Project.

The focal point of the project is Shelby County, particularly its struggling neighborhoods. The ensuing plan highlights solutions for maker business to develop and implement programs and infrastructure to meet consumer demand.

The recommendations span three categories: infrastructure, skill-building and optimization.

Old Dominick Distillery, a new distillery downtown, is bringing back whiskey to Memphis, and are also supporters of Memphis makers. Shotwell Candy Co. has a display in their store.

Recommendations from the plan concerning entrepreneurial support will be piloted by EPIcenter. Little Bird Innovation will continue its work developing a network of makers via Made By Project outreach.

“Think of infrastructure as a house that needs a solid foundation and skill-building as the windows and doors that open to new opportunities," Heckman said. "Optimization represents the special touches that set your house, or business in this case, apart from all the others and make it the envy of the neighborhood,” said Heckman.

Infrastructure gets first priority. The subsequent solutions are built upon it.

A business plan competition and two Co.Starters cohort educational programs were recommended for the first phase to start building the foundation.

“We’re excited that the first two recommendations from the plan actually look to entrepreneurs to build businesses around proposed solutions,” said Leslie Smith, president and CEO of EPIcenter.

In the fall, EPIcenter will launch the business solution competition. It will address logistics-related challenges identified through Made By research. More information about the proposed solutions in the logistics space, application process, and competition prizes will be released in August.

"While these efforts to support and grow maker businesses will positively affect the Memphis economy, they also promote a culture of creativity that is attractive to our citizens and our visitors alike."

The groups also plan to facilitate two Co.Starters cohorts in the late summer and winter. The nine-week programs will lend insights and tools to entrepreneurs. Each week, they will address fundamentals of business ownership and operation.

“The infrastructure solutions address gaps in our ecosystem, such as the fact that Memphis is a global logistics leader, but this conveys little competitive advantage today to local makers,” said Heckman

Memphis’ makers face challenges sourcing affordable, local raw materials; finding affordable, turnkey studio space can also be a hurdle. And with the city's high poverty rate, it’s hard to deny that an un-equitable access to capital exists, particularly for women and minorities.

Finally, Memphis needs its maker community to advocate their needs collectively, be they policy, education, or consumer awareness.

“Solving for these challenges and others like them will help to retain our creative talent and attract it from elsewhere as makers see that Memphis values creative entrepreneurship and small-scale manufacturing,” said Heckman.

The effort isn’t happening in a vacuum. Last year, online marketplace Etsy named Memphis a “Maker City.” It’s a title handed to municipalities that “value entrepreneurship, sustainability, and responsible manufacturing,” according to

“Makers and the products they create embody our city’s spirit and authenticity. While these efforts to support and grow maker businesses will positively affect the Memphis economy, they also promote a culture of creativity that is attractive to our citizens and our visitors alike,” said Smith.

A lot of credit for the honor goes to the Made By Project and its research. This past February, the project released data from a survey of 315 local makers.

“No other city has invested in such a rigorous qualitative and quantitative research approach before developing recommendations,” said Heckman.

Interviews spanned a wide array of craft type, time in business, geography and race. This was done to gain a broad perspective.

“Makers can be doing everything right, but if key skill-building classes and services aren’t available to them locally, that puts them at a competitive disadvantage."

They also mapped the current business environment that supports makers. This includes educational opportunities to advance their skillset, as well as available sourcing and logistics services.

“Makers can be doing everything right, but if key skill-building classes and services aren’t available to them locally, that puts them at a competitive disadvantage,” said Heckman.

Overall, the plan proposes to increase the number of maker enterprises, especially women and minorities, adhering to the maker-model. Not to mention the variety and quality of products made.

“We are extremely excited about the implementation plans, as much of it entails entrepreneurs supporting other entrepreneurs," said Heckman.

"Several proposed solutions do not need an organization to spearhead them; what they need are entrepreneurs who feel passionately about solving for critical pain points makers are experiencing."

To that end, EPIcenter will seek entrepreneurs to build businesses around several of the recommended solutions, including leveraging the region’s global logistics capabilities into a competitive advantage.

A handful of concepts, makers and other entrepreneurs have approached Made By during feedback events. They shared their interest in making these specific ideas happen. Details on the remainder of the implementation plans will follow.

“As the hub of the entrepreneurial network, EPIcenter will work with partners to roll out additional solutions that address challenges and opportunities for makers,” said Smith.

Additionally, nominations for a Maker Council are under way. The body will give “guidance and advice” to foster entrepreneurship in the Bluff City. Self-nominations are welcome too, provided they are turned in by the June 30 deadline.

“We envision this group as leaders that can collaborate with makers, other creatives and civic leaders to capitalize on the opportunities in front of us,” said Heckman.

“We are looking for makers who are deeply passionate about the future of the Memphis maker community, want to advise on how businesses can better meet maker needs, have seasoned experience as a creative entrepreneur and enjoy giving thoughtful feedback.”

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Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.