Isaac Watson: Building a Nation of Makers

When I first met Isaac Watson it was online (where all good 21st Century business relationships start!). He was starting up a community for makers in Portland right about the time we were starting Academy of Handmade. My first thought was "I love the name! I love the idea!" and then my next thought was "Uh oh, are we competitors? Will he like us?" 

Luckily, this was not the case. We were able to bond over creating community and just how rough nonprofits can be (he has bravely and patiently chosen to take Maker's Nation down the NPO route and all of that terrifies me after years in the nonprofit sector). And while we could easily be enemies (or worse, frenemies!), it's nice to have another person working to make a world where making for a living is a viable option. It has been so great seeing Isaac's community grow and become a reality.

I asked him to share with you all about what he's up to, because if you're in Portland, I highly suggest stalking him and making him your friend (it's probably not really stalking if you show up to public events he throws and say hello-- so yeah, that too).

Isaac Watson is the founder of Maker's Nation.  Photo by  Gia Goodrich

Isaac Watson is the founder of Maker's Nation.  Photo by Gia Goodrich

Q: Tell us a little about yourself and how you came to form Maker's Nation. 
: I'm the founder of Maker’s Nation, a nonprofit educational program, resource, and community for independent creative entrepreneurs based in the creative Mecca of Portland, Oregon. Maker’s Nation was built upon the belief that makers can build their business the 21st-century way while meeting their people the old-fashioned way (face-to-face), and that they can (and should) thrive in the creative economy.

I’ve been involved in the handmade community for the last seven years. I originally studied graphic design in college, but decided I wouldn’t make a very good designer and instead started exploring handmaking as a hobby while I sorted out what I was going to do professionally. I opened my Etsy shop, Focal Length Designs, shortly thereafter, taking old discarded camera lenses and turning their focus rings into cuff bracelets. Along the way, I was involved with Etsy’s I Heart Art project here in Portland, which introduced me to the rewarding work of helping other creative business owners like myself hone their business skills and find community with their peers. When that project ended in 2012, I couldn’t stand watching the work I’d done disappear into the ether. So I closed up my Etsy shop and set out to start Maker’s Nation and continue with a new, expanded incarnation of what I’d started.

In addition to Maker’s Nation, I help with the production of World Domination Summit and Pioneer Nation, and freelance as a hired gun for creative project management and consulting.

Q: Why do you think makers need this kind of community? 
: Aside from a few friends and mentors, I had been selling my work on Etsy for nearly a year before I actually met many other Etsy sellers, and it was at a team meetup one evening that I had an epiphany—the one thing that sets this community apart is a void of competition. We just want each other to succeed and thrive!

The open exchange of experiences, mentorship, and ideas was exhilarating, and I love facilitating that. Most creatives tend to get so wrapped up in their work that there’s little time for other things, and the DIY mindset encourages us to pile everything about the business world onto ourselves, sometimes to our detriment. But what I’ve learned is that getting out of the house and back into a physical place with your peers can be hugely beneficial to your business, your emotional well-being, and your creativity. And that’s what I’m offering with Maker’s Nation.

Q: Who can be part of Maker's Nation? Who are some of your current members (types of businesses or actual business names)? 
A: Maker’s Nation is for anyone that does something creative for themselves and for a living. Our current membership includes a jewelry designer, an independent app developer, a retail interior designer, and an author, to name a few. I believe strongly that bringing different creative perspectives to the table makes for a vibrant conversation and helps open up your mind to new ideas and ways of conducting business.

Q: Now that you are a couple year's into Maker's Nation, how has it changed and where is it headed?
A: Maker’s Nation has been a long labor of love for me! After two years of planning and preparation, we officially launched in 2014 after a few significant pivots in our business model, and this year is the first year in full swing with our programs. I’ve learned a number of lessons along the way about marketing, finding a niche, collaborating with other organizations, program structures, and much more.

This year in particular I’m focusing less on formal, structured classroom environments and experimenting with a hybrid model that blends social activities and professional learning together in a way that’s more approachable, especially for introverted types like me. I’m also trying to be conscious of the programs being offered by other organizations to avoid duplication and find new ways to work together to serve our audiences.

Q: What are the benefits of joining?
A: The principle benefit for our members are awesome discounts or free entry to all of our programs. I’ve been working on building up some reciprocal benefits as well, like access to the Freelancers Union benefits network (health insurance, retirement plans, etc.) and endorsement for Kiva Zip microloans. Members also have access to online content not available to the public. Anyone interested in learning more can go here!

Q: You're based in Portland. Do you plan to expand outside of Portland? Can people be part of your organization if they live outside of Portland?
A: Portland is definitely our home, but I’ve always had a vision that Maker’s Nation would expand into other cities with awesome creative communities (I wouldn’t have called it a Nation otherwise!). I initially wanted that growth to happen right out of the gate, but my ambitions have been tempered by creating a solid program here first, then expanding it organically to other cities over time. Later this year we’ll be adding a free online community that people can join as Digital Citizens, and we’ll also have an announcement to make in the coming weeks about a program expansion, so stay tuned! :-)

Q: You chose to become a non-profit in your business structure. How does this impact and inform your business?
A: That’s actually a decision I struggled with for a long time. I worked in the nonprofit world for a handful of years and have to admit I became a little jaded by it. Starting a nonprofit alone is no small feat—the tax exempt application itself sat with the IRS for 14 months before it was finally approved. But having a nonprofit enables us to achieve two goals: we can seek sponsorships, donations, and grant funding as a means of keeping our programs affordable for emerging makers, and as a mission-driven organization we don’t have to worry as much about corporate influence or being driven solely by profit. When it comes down to it, we’re a community-based organization, and the nonprofit structure reinforces that. For the time being it’s all volunteer work for me, so I can focus on making the most difference in the community instead of worrying about how I’m going to get paid (I have other jobs for that).

Q: Anything else?
A: I will die a happy man when makers of all stripes are able to find a way to thrive and flourish in their creative business endeavors. I want you to succeed and help you out along the way however I can! I also try to be as accessible as possible (despite the many hats I wear), so feel free to drop me a line to say hello or ask questions:

Q: Where can people find you online?
A: Our website is, and all upcoming programs are listed on our calendar. Our Twitter and Facebook feeds include all kinds of links and information about running a creative business. I love combing the internet for articles, posts, and resources that makers could find beneficial in their business life! Follow Maker’s Nation on Instagram for a visual manifesto that you won’t see on Twitter of Facebook. And of course, sign up for our email newsletter for monthly updates on upcoming programs, news, latest blog posts, and more.