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Made Cleveland is a one-stop online shop with a hyperlocal focus

Made Cleveland founder Ash O’Connor poses in front of a paper flower wall from local
artist Love, Anji.
Niki Miller
Made Cleveland founder Ash O’Connor poses in front of a paper flower wall from local artist Love, Anji.

Ash O’Connor has long been an advocate for locally made goods and for individuals brave enough to start a new career.

O’Connor, herself, has a lot of experience with starting new careers. She has been a musician, artist, bookkeeper, bartender and manager of a small newspaper. She’s worked as an operations manager in manufacturing, and spent time fixing flutes and clarinets.

Considering her own crazy-quilt life, O’Connor appreciates others courageous enough to try something new. Those core values prompted her to launch Made Cleveland, an online sales platform that champions area creators.

O’Connor’s digital marketplace hosts 150-plus artists, designers and producers making everything from furniture to any number of self-care items. In simple terms, Made Cleveland is the North Coast version of the well-known online marketplace Etsy, acting as a platform for makers and creators to sell their products.

The site’s communal aspect is crucial, as it builds camaraderie among entrepreneurs — not to mention a giant megaphone for artists seeking to out-shout big box establishments, said O’Connor.

“When I think about what Made Cleveland is, it’s about gaining access to locally made goods as easily as possible,” said O’Connor. “That’s not only beneficial to vendors, but to the community itself.”

Post-COVID changes to how America approaches work is an inspiration for O’Connor. Nearly half of Americans have a “side hustle” alongside their regular job, whether to supplement income or for a creative outlet. Although O’Connor started Made Cleveland in late 2019, the shut down of farmer’s markets during the pandemic quickened the need for an online shopping solution, she said.

Prior to the pandemic, Cleveland Heights-based entrepreneur Andrea Oliver offered in-person facials and skin-care regimens for clients sensitive to over-the-counter beauty products. After COVID-19 halted face-to-face appointments, Oliver brought her line of skin-saving Botanixx products to O’Connor’s marketplace, then brand new.

“After COVID happened, I could no longer meet my clients,” said Oliver. “I started Botanixx so people could keep up with their skin care even though we couldn’t see each other.”

Today, Oliver hand-makes plant-based soaps and moisturizers, then ships them directly to the consumer in recyclable packaging. Made Cleveland gives Oliver an audience, not to mention a means for people to purchase her wares from a personal shop page with a single click.

“I was just interested in getting myself out there more, and Made Cleveland was the first opportunity I saw where this was being done locally,” Oliver said. “Ash also gave me free counseling on branding and marketing. She’s been a friend as well as a mentor.”

Lifting up local small businesses

Small businesses are the lifeblood of their communities, noted O’Connor. As about two-thirds of every dollar spent at a small business stays in the neighborhood, the Made Cleveland founder wanted to create this same “circular economy” in her hometown.

Poor regional representation for artists – along with difficulties connecting to makers on the consumer end - led O’Connor to conceive the site. Made Cleveland, which bills itself as “a one-stop shop for local Cleveland culture creators,” also acts as a community for those same producers, O'Connor said.

For example, artists spinning out pottery with the same type of clay can get together to buy materials in bulk. Ultimately, the platform is powered by this level of business-minded camaraderie, O’Connor said.

“You’re competing with people that have deep pockets,” said O’Connor. “When it comes to Google searches or being found on social media, the big-box stores of the world can outspend you. That’s why places like Made Cleveland are really helpful, because, collectively, we leverage our voices to bring more attention to what’s happening.”

Consumers can visit individual vendor pages for product, shipping and item exchange details. Made Cleveland members offer delivery and local pick-up options — every purchase made through the site is sent directly from the creators themselves, said O’Connor.

That is not to say Made Cleveland is an entirely altruistic enterprise. The company generates much of its revenue from a storefront O’Connor opened at the former City Buddha site in Cleveland Heights’ Coventry Village. 

Made Cleveland receives 40% of in-store sales, though O’Connor does not charge rent for vendors selling at the store. The site also gets a 10% commission for online purchases, while charging a small monthly membership fee for its hosting and marketing services.

“The goal on the site is volume with owners producing and shipping their products,” said O’Connor. “We’re keeping a low percentage of sales for administrative costs.” 

Meanwhile, O’Connor’s team is busy revamping the platform into a national aggregate of hyperlocal sites. The new site will include Cleveland artists along with separate groups of national creators.

O’Connor hopes to reach the entire contiguous U.S. with the new endeavor, which may launch under a different name, while keeping the Made Cleveland brand on the retail side. Expansion has O’Connor searching for similar hyperlocal competitors, but she has not discovered much besides a few simple landing pages with links to various businesses. 

The Home Pantry owner Alaina Caruso is one entrepreneur ready to ride with O’Connor wherever she goes. Caruso, who sells her locally sourced and produced jams and mixes on the Made Cleveland site, connected with O’Connor via a mutual artist acquaintance. The platform now carries Caruso’s full line of goods, with names such as Strawberry Rose and Blueberry Chamomile.

Caruso lauds O’Connor as “an awesome human being” with a deep commitment to the Cleveland creator community.

“Ash is so focused on quality goods — she understands the passion that goes into all these different products,” said Caruso. “She makes it worth our while in terms of putting products out there and highlighting makers in general.”

In 2023, Caruso has been using Made Cleveland to highlight her 11 top-selling products. Not only is the site a comprehensive catalog of her offerings, it provides critical connections to shoppers, as well, Caruso said.

“If you don’t have people talking about you, it’s just grit and grind,” said Caruso. “Showing people your products is hard to do on your own. When you’re behind the scenes as a small business owner, you need people like Ash on your side.”

For her part, Ash O’Connor is happy to run a web platform that values both creator and consumer alike.

“What keeps me going is never working for anyone else again, while giving an opportunity to people who want to be more self-sufficient,” O’Connor said.

Douglas J. Guth is a freelance journalist based in Cleveland Heights. His focus is on business, with bylines in publications including Crain's Cleveland Business and Middle Market Growth.