When she visited Ravelry.com, a pattern-sharing and social media website known as the “Facebook of knitting,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology Ph.D. candidate Hyejun Kim realized she was watching the journey from hobbyist to entrepreneur happen in real time. With data.

“It’s impossible not to study this,” she thought.

Kim’s resulting analysis sheds light on the hard-to-measure early stages of entrepreneurship, and the social and economic forces that cause someone to flip the switch from “fun” to “profit.”

She analyzed almost 100 interviews and 403,168 profiles of knitters and crocheters. She found that even on one of the internet’s great niche social networks, offline encouragement and feedback helped most talented hobbyists recognize their ability and take the first steps toward monetizing it. Online success was propelled by real-life interactions.

Kim calculates that about 96 percent of Ravelry’s users are women. In a time when online side hustles and gigs are proliferating, her work helps us understand the forces that encourage skilled women to step off the sidelines.

Many entrepreneurs emerge from a pool of dedicated hobbyists, but it’s hard to study that transition. You would have to meticulously track years of activities, interests and output of every person who participates in a hobby. Remarkably, Ravelry’s design encourages their users to do almost exactly that. The 8 million-plus people who have signed up for Ravelry since 2007 use it regularly, according to a survey conducted for the National NeedleArts Association.

Together those knitters have built the kind of detailed, long-running data set that prior generations of economists could only dream of. They post the projects they complete, the patterns and yarn they use, and the real-world groups they join. They even link their accounts to personal storefronts where they sell patterns to other users.

“For knitters, it is great to keep records,” Kim said. “For researchers, it is great to observe every knitting activity of every knitter.”

The women who started businesses, her research found, tended to be skilled stitchers and pattern designers before they joined their knitting groups. The move toward entrepreneurship began almost immediately after joining. In other words, the offline social network of the gatherings gave the knitters something they didn’t have before: confidence.

 

Van Dam writes for the Washington Post.