A friend once accused Joshua Crawford of being a thinker, not a doer.
Accepting that this assertion was probably correct, he resolved to channel his love of unique entomological curios (deceased decorative insects, to the unfamiliar) into a small creative business.
These days his Indiana Jones-inspired online shop It’s Not Fortune Cookies does a buzzing trade in preserved insects, all enchantingly framed or displayed to show off the astonishing detail in their multicoloured wings and bodies.
Josh ships his beautiful bugs (all ethically sourced – they died of natural causes) to customers all over the world from his Cork studio.
This is how he’s WORKING IT…
What inspired me to open my own business? Various trips to Natural History Museums and whatnot played a factor, of course. There’s something wonderfully satisfying about rows and rows of carefully selected and curated insects. Obviously there’s an aesthetic appeal, but for me those old collections also summon really evocative images of eccentric, bearded Victorians leaping about with butterfly nets on moors, as well as all those wonderful names they chose for their specimens: Tawny Rajah, Purple Emperor, Purple Hairstreak, Queen of Spain Fritillary… it’s fun just to say them.
It sounds a bit pretentious, but another big push towards the entomological world was the novel Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad. In it the narrator Marlow meets a gentleman named Stein, who is a beetle and butterfly collector. The way he’s described and how Conrad has him express his passion and mania really resonated with me.
I gradually evolved from collecting to selling. Part of it was out of monetary necessity, to feed my own habit (curio sellers have an uncanny resemblance to pusher men), but I also wanted to be a bit more creative with my life.
I’m Cork born and bred. I think it’s a testament to the city that I’ve never felt a desperate need to move elsewhere. It’s hard to get bored here as something’s always going on. In terms of size and population it punches well above its weight, and there’s so many outlying towns all over the county that add to that appeal.
I wasn’t sure there would be a market for what I was doing. But I’ve found Etsy really convenient from that point of view. It’s low risk, with minimal overheads. I can reach people in Ireland but I’ve also been able to sell to individuals across the globe. Today, for instance, I shipped specimens off to the States, France and Taiwan. It’s always fascinating to me to calculate how far my insects have travelled – from their country of origin, to my suppliers, to me and then on to their final owner. These bugs have seen far more of the world than I ever will, that’s for sure.
For me, confidence is always going to be an issue. I don’t know if it was Woody Allen or Groucho Marx, but someone once said, “I could never be part of a club that would have someone like me as a member.” I’m inclined to think that if I’m interested in, or happy with something, no-one else possibly could, or should, share that interest. But thankfully I have many good people in my life who have been nothing but encouraging and supportive. My customers have been wonderfully vocal in their support too, which helps enormously.
I make mistakes all the time. There’s a horrific graveyard of mutilated butterflies and beetles on my desk to remind me of that fact (one of these days I think I’ll use all those broken old wings, limbs and carapaces to make some sort of freakish Frankenstein aberration). But generally there are more successes than failures. As time goes by the failures are becoming far less frequent.
Napoleon Dynamite said it best: “Just follow your heart. That’s what I do.” Only kidding. A good friend of mine said that its important to market a personality as much as a product, which makes sense. So I try to inject as much of myself and my sense of humour as possible into what I do. Placing my pieces within a visual context ties into that, so I always make sure that the photos I take include peculiar or esoteric props and artefacts in the background or peripheral spaces.
The three things in my working week I love are:
That moment when you open up a new butterfly or moth for the first time and get to see it in all its splendour (butterflies and moths are shipped to me folded, with their wings closed).
Hearing Finbarre’s jokes down at the post office.
Sticking on a decent album, pouring myself a large gin, and getting started on a new specimen.
I like to prioritise the customer over profit (watch this space, I’ll be down and out in a year). If it’s a choice between making sure a buyer is happy or making a few extra quid I tend to err on the side of the former. I enjoy what I do far too much to want to turn it into something soulless.
My advice to another wannabe entrepreneur in this industry? Approach it as a hobby first. Do it because you love it, because, let’s face it, this is never going to be the world’s most lucrative industry.
Hashtags are a wonderful thing. I’m still learning the ropes on this one, but it’s amazing what a difference a carefully chosen hashtag can make. For instance, realising my pieces had an appeal for those with rather macabre tastes, I adapted my hashtags accordingly and reached far more people as a result. Linking into feeds like Etsy Ireland has also been helpful, as is engaging with Cork-based accounts. To be honest though, I have a love/hate relationship with social media.
I restrict my involvement with it as much as possible. No Twitter, no Facebook. I work in a visual medium so Instagram suits me best and functions as my shop window.
I have two workspaces: one for messy woodwork, spray-painting and whatnot, and the other for the more delicate end of the process. Both are in a state of organised chaos. I know where everything is but to the casual onlooker it’s probably pretty terrifying.
So far the big sellers have been the more spectacular jewel beetles, especially the Cyphogastra javanica, and, of course, Death’s Head Hawk Moths. The latter get leapt upon as soon as they’re up on Etsy. People’s tastes can be something of an enigma to me though. One of my favourite pieces, a Madagascan Sunset Moth, has yet to sell, and it’s been available for some time now. As time goes by though, I’m gradually getting to know what’s more in demand and I adapt my stock accordingly.
Right now I’m waiting for a bunch of new specimens to come in. Plenty of gorgeous beetles should be hitting the site in the next month or so. I’m also hoping to experiment with different types of mother of pearl mounts for the framed pieces. Up until now I’ve been using freshwater nacre, but I’ve got a shipment of black mother of pearl coming in soon that should be pretty spectacular.
My original intention when I started It’s Not Fortune Cookies was to write a short story to accompany each specimen I was selling, a la J Peterman. But so far I’ve only managed to get one done (it’s about a Lamprina adolphinae from Papua New Guinea). Hopefully I can do a few more this year. I’m working on a Raymond Chandler inspired piece at the moment to go with a golden scarab beetle, but it’s taking a very long time to finish.