HOUSTON (AP) — Shortly after becoming an empty-nester in 2007, John Leslie invested in a $20,000 laser cutter to produce wooden jewelry out of his Houston garage.
The Houston Chronicle reports he sold pieces at shops here and there, even dabbled in online marketplaces.
Then, Amazon reached out.
In 2015, the online retail giant was beta-testing a niche platform where artisans could sell handmade craftwork while giving Amazon a 15 percent cut. A representative offered Leslie a shot at being one of the first few vendors in the program, now known as Amazon Handmade. Leslie saw it as too good an opportunity to pass up.
"I thought to myself, this is Amazon," Leslie said. "Millions and millions of people go on there every day. They drive customers to your front door."
Between mid-October 2015 and the end of that year, Leslie recorded $20,000 in sales, which nearly paid for the laser cutter. Last year he raked in $125,000 in sales. He is currently 25 percent ahead of where he was sales-wise at the same time last year. And he's on his third laser.
"I don't see it coming to an end unless the laser cuts my fingers off," Leslie said of his work with Amazon Handmade.
The maker movement, involving both artisans and fans of their unique handcrafted products, got its second wind around the start of the recession, said Pamela Diamond, spokeswoman for the American Craft Council. People cared more about how they spent their money and were more willing to pay for personalized or otherwise unique goods.
Back then, the go-to online marketplace for such products was Etsy, which continues to dominate among online options for artisan vendors.
In its fourth quarter of 2017, Etsy reported gross merchandise sales of more than $1 billion. It was the first time the company crossed the billion-dollar mark. It held the company's first site-wide sales last year, for Labor Day and Cyber Monday.
As Etsy expanded its sale of both handmade and manufactured products, Amazon customers began requesting a more centralized shopping destination on Amazon's site for handmade, eco-friendly goods, said Katie Harnetiaux, worldwide head of marketing for Amazon Handmade.
Amazon Handmade went live in North America in 2015, later opening in the European Union in 2016 and Canada and Mexico at the end of 2017.
There are currently more than 40,000 handmade products listed on Handmade from artisans in Texas. At the start of 2017, the company announced it sold 500,000 items by artisans across all 50 states and from 80 countries around the world.
Products include everything from wooden earrings by Leslie, to wedding party favors, to a king-size bed frame.
"If you want something handmade you'll be able to find it," Harnetiaux said.
Many of the vendors affiliated with Handmade are 30 to 60 and they skew toward women supplementing their existing salaries, starting out a new career or simply engaging in a money-making hobby. One of their youngest artisans is a girl in middle school who makes and sells toy slime, Harnetiaux said.
When Leslie began selling on Amazon, he still owned and operated a home-health care business with his wife. In 2016, the couple sold the business and the two focused on the digital storefront John Leslie Studios.
Profit tends to remain steady 10 months out of the year, Leslie said. He's able to manage his own schedule, even take trips to Kentucky and Alabama to see his daughters. Come November, however, Leslie is in his workshop 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.
By then, orders from the U.S. and Germany come in for his best-sellers: personalized wooden Christmas tree ornaments.
At his busiest, Leslie relies on Amazon's vendor services to help answer such questions as how to best ship a product internationally or how to better promote a new line of home décor. For non-personalized items, Leslie uses the Fulfillment by Amazon service.
He crafts about 40 to 50 items and ships them to an Amazon warehouse. Customers can then purchase them online with the Prime two-day delivery option.
"It's like they sell themselves," Leslie said.
Harnetiaux noted an upswing in last-minute shopping, and said online marketplaces like Amazon Handmade offer artisans a chance to get their goods into customers' hands faster than by going the traditional brick and mortar route.
Inside the garage workshop of John Leslie Studios, Leslie is already crafting a customer's personalized baby's first Christmas ornament, a good sign for this year's holiday season.